There’s been a lot of talk about the surprising pleasantness of Labour conference. And it’s true. Far from the fist fights, and excluding some obscene and quickly shut down exemptions on the fringe, conference was a thoroughly enjoyable and happy affair. It usually is, even if as masochists we walk in expecting and even being there to observe some royal shitshow.
But, at the risk of bursting bubbles and being the cynic, I don’t think unity was much more than rhetorical.
The fringes were full of wonderful and motivating speakers pointing out just how united we were. And on the fringes -and maybe after three glasses of some really gross white wine- it is very easy to believe. Attending events on brexit, poverty, inequality, metro mayors. We, as a party, are incredibly united. This is reflected in much of the PLP too, despite popular myth.
Talking to Louise Haigh, she was clearly sincere when she told me her dissent agains the leadership was without a doubt one based on incompetence. So when Conference ended on a far better speech by Corbyn than he delivered in 2015, I am assured that much of the PLP and wider party felt a resurgence of loyalty and faith.
But, however sincere in rhetoric, there was an important characteristic to this odd affair: something felt very familiar about this conference.
I knew everyone.
The fables of insurgencies at the grassroots, indeed that which I’ve seen in the two CLPs I have gotten to know since Corbyn’s first election, was not reflected at conference. And if it was, it was in no corner that I managed to reach. And I spent much of my time wondering around aimlessly the exhibition floor.
No, for me, it was the feel of a school reunion. More than that, the school reunion of my predecessors. You may sincerely believe the party, however transformed, can coalesce and unite in such a way as to cheer Tom Watson’s speech calling for the defence of Blair. But I’m not sure I buy it. What I do buy is that the people I saw during my 3 hazy days on that exhibition floor -not so much the Right, but veterans who I recognised from the halcyon days of Ed Miliband- would absolutely cheer such a speech. But those that would not were simply absent at that time. Tom Watson’s enemies have not evaporated into thin air. They chose not to be present in any potential battlefield. It was that absence that made that hall in the speeches by both Sadiq and Tom feel thoroughly 2009.
Either that TWT was held elsewhere, and I hear it was very harmonious, or that we existed by the fringes, events and gatherings we attended (something I opted to do in place of perching myself on the balcony), or that more than just factional, there was a genuine generational impact on those that opted to attend. What it felt like to me was a trend of self-selection. And by implication a highly, autonomously and mutually managed event.
And this management was by obvious implication and assumption. The Fabian events were a moderate affair. LabourList that of older members, albeit not exclusively. And without needing to say, those organised at TWT would have given an implicitly exclusive space to their opposites. But the basic trend was that there was little shared ground to fight over. And no intent to change that.
Certainly, talking to people from the Right to the Soft Left to Corbynites, the mood was generally that of emotional and physical exhaustion, a hangover, or both. For the former two, the sense of powerlessness, of letting things slide for the four days and enjoying said four days as a bender or a chance to meet up with like-minded allies for a collective bender. For the latter, a sense it could be celebrated elsewhere, at TWT or in the fringe, where attention and anger wouldn’t be attracted. But both refused conference as a place to start or re-start hostilities, despite a few exemptions. Thanks, Max, and to Liam Young for his laughably melodramatic tweet that I read while watching members clap as the infamous guide dog Natalie navigate her obstacle course.
This wasn’t to say this divide and separation was even between Corbynites and his critics. But, as said, generationally more than anything else. The hall cheering Tom felt 2009 because it was 2009.
The few surprise unifiers that defy my presumptions are the rising stars: Clive Lewis and Angela Rayner, and the likes of Ed Miliband, Lisa Nandy, John Healey, and others, who developed followings and adorations on both sides of the party (or was that just me?). Their fringes, as with many, it goes without saying, were laden with Corbynites and critics alike. And when on the issues we all care about, the commonalities would shine through. And that was nice.
But beyond that, the peace felt rhetorical. The two sides were happy mostly to exist in parallel, coming together occasionally and without fuss. Both tribal. Both committed. But perhaps not quite there yet to sing D:Ream in harmony together. Unless I truly misread the composition of the crowd I was with at the Animal Welfare karaoke. I hope I did.