Having spent a full day yesterday at conference yesterday I managed to meet, drink coffee, talk listen, attend events, receptions and meet up with what we fondly call the PLP in Exile – ie an ex Labour MPs Club! I talked to all wings of the party and those here for ‘lobbying’ or exhibitors. Hence my title. For some – as I overheard one Labour veteran phoning his wife say of McDonnell Speech – this was the best speech I have heard, I have been waiting 30 years to hear something like this. But most of the people I spoke to feel they are living in a nightmare and assume one day they will weake up and realise this was all a bad dream.
The most worrying conversation I had was one person who felt they were living the dream. When I explained that from my experience I was pretty confident that a Corbyn led party couldn’t reach out to middle England and win an election they told me “oh I know but that doesn’t matter, we now have a genuine left wing choice.” For once I was lost for words.
I have to admit that my group of friends in the Party means my sample is clearly not representative of the wider membership but I did manage to speak to many IN the shadow cabinet, those who didn’t choose to go onto the front bench, former collegaues and fairly sensible activits. The overwhelming message was clear. We cannot fight an election in 2020 with any hope of winning with Corbyn as leader.
What is obvious is quite a bit of affection for Jeremy himself – and deservedly so. Although former hardened whips don’t share quite the same affection. Don’t forget this is a Leader now asking for some loyalty who came into Parliament to vote against us and his Labour government over 500 times. Most of those votes would have been for Tory and Lib Dem amendments. The call my McDonnell for those who decided not to serve to ‘come back’ and serve the party was difficult to take seriously for many.
The other consistent message I heard was the need for MPs and front benchers to apply a fixed grin, smile and pretend everything will be ok. They know this truce can’t last as some decisions will have to be made on policy at some stage and their views are diametrically opposed to those of Corbyn. Whilst Jeremy himslef has been quite consensual so far, they fear that not all those now getting their hands on the machinary of the party are quite so nice.
I have already cited the size of the mandate for the Corbyn victory means they have to respect his position. Perhaps that is why tests are being set for him as it wil be difficult to see how on earth any leadership contest could be crafted in other circumstances. The tests are of course the elections in 2016. We have a good series of tests with the London Mayoralty, Scottish & welsh as well as local government elections. None of us trust the polls at the moment so perhaps only real votes in real elections will give us any clues about project Corbyn. It will be mid term of a Tory government imposing austerity cuts so in the discourse of the Corbyn campaign we should be winning hese elections – and winning them big. Failure to do so will be a massive blow to the Corbyn project. So it seems at least until May 2016 nothing will happen. The leadership and front becnh will try to find a formula that works for them both. I am not convinced how this will work. There are way too many differences. I can foresee too mnay internal battles and not enough focus on doing the job of opposing the government. Already you can see the Tories feel they have free reign to do what they like almost with impunity.
I have been cheered by the fact that there are now so many people willing to do some heart searching and to work out what went wrong in May 2015 (we seem to have forgotten here that we lost an election badly in May) There is no assumption that a return to the formula of the 1990s ill work again in 2020 or 2025. It will be a very different world by then and like in so much of my other work work on thinking differently I would love our policy making toto forward thinking about the world as it might be not as it was 5 years ago.
Finally before diving into meetings and working out how I will watch the main event – the Leaders speech – I was struck by the fact that this is the first Leaders speech that has not been tested against a focus group for a generation. I know the term focus group has become discredited and especially by those who want a politics of passion and inspration. I get that. But a focus group IS useful because guess what, most voters don’t have a passion for politics and don’t always want inspiring. They want to know what it means for them, ther lives and their communities. They don’t want all the rhetoric that goes down well in the hall. And this is my worry. For those MPs and others who have seen Corbyn at the fringe meeting circuit , and those who witnessed the TUC speech, it is basically the same everyhwere he goes. It is the speech he has happily given to rallies for 30+ years. Corbyn has spent his life giving heart warming speeches to already convinced groups and lost causes. He is great at making people feel good about their cause and campaign. But he is now the Leadrer of the Labour Party and somebody who has to win the hearts and affectsions, loyalty and trust from large swathes of the electorate who he has never really spoken to before. This is a mssive test and surrounding himslef with the right people who can tell him this will be vital.
What next for me? I am willing and able to offer advice to anybody who will listen. I will be part of any debate and policy making process and will make the case for politcies that deliver the possibility of a Labour government. It means I will continue to comment from the sidelines without being disloyal and too critical. I am taking up the challenge set out by Corbyn for more open and honest debate, so I am sure they don’t see honesty from those who disagree with them as crticism – but healthy discourse.
I am looking forward to playing a back seat role with a variety of hats on – but 2016 will be a great opportunity to follow some of my passions around sport policy and working with others to look at the role of faith in politics and wht it means in an increasingly secular society.
As everybody said yesterday. We live in ‘intersting times’.