From the outside the Labour Party conference appeared to be one of two halves. On one side the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn joyously celebrated at Momentum’s alternative conference, The World Transformed, whilst on the other the so called moderate wing of the Labour Party seethed in defeat at the Party’s official conference a 15-minute walk away on Liverpool’s Albert Docks.
This perception is in many ways only a partial truth and the realities of this weekend’s conference reveal a muddier picture inside a party divided after this summer’s leadership contest.
The Labour Party’s official conference had a much flatter tone than any that I previously been to. This flat tone and sense of deflation was picked up on by virtually every Labour staffer or journalist that I spoke to. The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn was not unexpected, having been foretold by polls of party members and supporters virtually since the contest began back in July. This sense of the inevitable pre-defined the mood of most moderate members of the party who attended the conference.
Despite the deflated mood, not all staffers and MP’s consigned themselves to mope around the bars of the Albert Docks or the nearby hotels. Fringe events, rally’s and discussions were held to address the challenges facing the Labour Party. Major themes included the decline of Labours traditional support in working class areas, how the party deals with the growing threat from UKIP, a growing plea for the Government to do more to help vulnerable refugees and crucially what position the Party should take in the post Brexit world.
These debates and discussions, whilst often containing pointed criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership, were conducted with a generally unifying tone. This greater call for unity was echoed by a Stay in Labour movement organised at the conference with the aim to stop members disappointed with Jeremy’s re-election from leaving the Labour Party altogether.
If the tone of the Labour conference was flat, Momentum’s alternative conference, The World Transformed, was a very different beast.
The most striking thing about the World Transformed was its scale. It was tiny. The building which it was held in, The Black-E in Liverpool’s China Town, was a community centre significantly smaller than the Teviot, containing just two main rooms, an exhibition area and a downstairs lecture theatre.
The feel of the conference was very much like a community organised event. It had rustic, wholesome feel that was distinct from the professional sheen of the official Labour Conference. The attendees of the conference were either very young and studenty or very old, likely representing the older generation who left Labour during the Blair years. They were also very local, mostly from Liverpool or nearby areas.
It was strikingly different from its media portrayal. This was not the snake pit of modern Marxists striving solely for the deselection of MP’s. In reality it felt like a positive coming together of those who share left wing ideas in a safe space, organised by an enthusiastic group of young organisers. From this experience Momentum’s conference appeared like a red herring, the threat to the Labour establishment so often discussed wasn’t residing within the Black-E.
In reality this threat had organised itself in bars and hotels of Labour’s official conference. If any moderates were looking to the enemy at the gates gathering at the Black-E, then they had failed to identify their enemy within.
The only calls for deselection of MP’s that I heard were yelled outside the Echo Area. I passed by at least three different groups advocating such a move as well some activists handing out literature on how to deselect Labour MPs.
The conference hall was fractious during debates and speeches with the make-up of the audience shifting depending on the speaker. Most notably was the transformation between the Deputy Leader Tom Watson’s speech and Jeremy’s keynote address. At the late night social events the room’s often felt half full as friends and acquaintances of mine on the left of the Party were nowhere to be seen. If this was a conference of two halves, then these halves were close together, yet very far apart.
Unifying calls were made by both wings of the Labour Party this weekend. Each side however believes that it is that it is incumbent on the other to offer the first olive branch. The willingness of the moderate wing of the party on this has yet to proven whilst initial positive moves on the Corbyn side have been withdrawn or partially backtracked upon.
However, it seems to me that there is appetite, largely among soft left MP’s, to broker a settlement. Although until we know if there can be a truce it looks like the war of attrition inside the Party may continue for some time.
Image: Garry Knight