Brexit steals the show in Brighton

By Angus Reilly, Intern

Although it’s fair to say events elsewhere in the Supreme Court were to end up overshadowing everything else at Labour Conference, events in Brighton may have implications for the party and country in years to come.

As well as plenty of infighting, Labour set the groundwork for an election campaign with a series of radical proposals that would have attracted media attention had it not been for the decision of the Supreme Court.

On the issue of housing, Jeremy Corbyn repeated previous promises to deliver “the largest council housebuilding programme in a generation” under Labour.

Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey described the £4bn a year previously promised by the party as a “starting point”, adding “We’d expect to see that ramp up rapidly after the first year and we are able to put it in place. Some of the programmes at the moment have to start from such a low base, whether that’s 2,640 council homes only built last year for the first time, or just over 6,000 new social rented homes built last year across the country. So we’ve got a big challenge and we know what a low base we start from.”

A motion from Young Labour to build 155,000 social rented a homes a year, including at least 100,000 with immediate effect, was passed unanimously by conference, and now goes to the party’s National Policy Forum to decide whether it should be in the next manifesto. The motion was based on a report from Shelter’s social housing commission published in January, which said 3.1m new social homes were needed over the next 20 years.

When Corbyn was elected he promised to include members’ voices in policy making far more than previously so motions proposed have become an essential piece of the policy making process.

Away from the conference hall, at a fringe event for councillors, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is understood to have accused large housing associations of being unaccountable. Healey also said this was a “challenge” for the sector.

He added: “Grenfell has brought it back to the sector as well as raised with the public the need for housing associations and our housing providers across the board to do much more to involve the voice of tenants and residents. That would be part of our plan, as well as wanting housing associations to be much clearer and closer to the social purpose that many of them were originally founded [on].”

Before conference, there had also been speculation emanating from the Shadow Chancellor’s office about introducing a ‘Right to Buy’ for private tenants, but this was met with swift condemnation by the National Landlords Association and was played down by Labour sources.

Of course, housing was far from the only area of policy where Labour has set a very radical agenda. The party also pledged to invest £1billion in wind farms, and a motion in support of the Green New Deal that committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 passed, despite opposition from the GMB Union over concerns about potential job losses. Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth announced that Labour would abolish prescription charges and establish a National Care Service to provide free care homes for the elderly, at an estimated cost of £6billion.

The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell launched a plan to cut the average working week from 38 to 32 hours, following a policy review authored by economist Robert Skidelsky. This “four day week” policy was deeply popular on the conference floor and was cited by many delegates as the highlight of conference.

Meanwhile, another “member-led” policy that passed overwhelmingly, with the endorsement of Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, was a commitment to “integrate all private schools into the state sector”.

In truth, away from policy development it was a conference of two halves – before the Supreme Court verdict, and afterwards. Initially, it looked as though vicious infighting would dominate.

On the eve of conference, Jon Lansman, the Chair of Momentum and a member of Labour’s NEC, initiated a “coup” against Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader, over Watson’s perceived lack of support for Jeremy Corbyn and his vocal advocacy of a second referendum.

Lansman wanted the Deputy Leader role abolished, but the attempted coup partially failed, however, following a welter of complaints from party moderates and unions. These led Corbyn to say the post should be put under review rather than immediately abolished, so Watson was able to remain in his position, at least for the time being.

The attempted coup threatened to overshadow a conference announcements that was meant to set the stage for a general election everyone expects to come soon.

However, the Supreme Court’s seismic decision to declare the Government’s prorogation of Parliament unlawful intervened, uniting the party.

The recall of Parliament meant Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was moved forward by a day (Watson’s was cancelled), but contained relatively little that was new; the news cycle was dominated the Supreme Court’s decision so new announcements would have been overshadowed by that news.

The central debate on conference floor was over whether to unequivocally back remain in a second referendum. Yet, keen to support their Leader, delegates decided to back what Labour has been doing for the past two years on Brexit: they equivocated. The motion that passed stated Labour would decide their position some time in the future, potentially after a special conference.

Opposition party’s conferences rarely break through. Throughout the week there was a conscious notion that what happened in Brighton would not reverberate much beyond the conference centre; Boris Johnson was in New York, Parliament’s fate rested on eleven judges, there was uncertainty over whether there would be a General Election, and even more about whether Brexit was going to happen on the 31st of October or even happen at all.

All this uncertainty meant radical policies could be debated without much of an eye on the wider public.

In the history of the Labour Party, the 2019 Brighton conference might mark a point where truly radical policies were embraced: a four-day week, the abolition of private schools, a Green New Deal and a massive increase in housebuilding. But for now, it will probably best be remembered for the long shadow cast by Brexit.