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Labour Party back in business?

By Emma Shearer, Political Intelligence 

The Labour Party descended on Liverpool this week for this year’s Conference, unsurprisingly, dominated by Brexit. Corbyn was keen to put the tumultuous summer behind him and capitalise on the fractious Conservative in-fighting on Brexit. Corbyn’s speech was, as a result clearly looking to position himself as a Prime Minister-in-waiting and the Labour Party as a government-in-waiting. He boosted Labour’s green credentials, announcing Labour’s intention to kick-start a “Green Jobs Revolution” to help tackle climate change, provide sustainable energy for the future and create skilled jobs across the UK.  

With the political future of the country so uncertain, and the perception that Conservatives are no longer the party of business in the way they once were due to Brexit, this year has seen a marked increase in engagement from big business. With large companies including Google, Visa, Fujitsu and BP all exhibiting, it is clear that businesses are stepping up efforts to engage with the opposition, particularly Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, and his protégé, shadow Business Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. McDonnell even stated at a CBI event that “Labour must meet business halfway or they will crack the foundations of this country’s prosperity”.  

From the podium, McDonnell was less cosy with business, setting out new policies to put workers on boards, force companies to give 10% of share to staff, increase corporation tax and implement a minimum £10 national living wage. The nationalisation of major utilities including water and energy, as well as the railways and national rail all featured in McDonnell’s speech, which was well received on the conference floor, though will be a harder sell to business.  

Those anticipating Brexit drama ahead of the conference were rewarded when Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, went decidedly off-script to announce ‘Remain’ would be an option on any people’s vote on Brexit. This departure from the script was an interpretation of the ‘compromise’ negotiated with conference delegates. Whilst the speech won Starmer a standing ovation on Tuesday, it went directly against McDonnell’s pledge the previous day that any new public vote would only be on the terms of the Brexit deal, and has done little to clarify Labour’s position.  

Here are our top takeaways from the 2018 Labour Party Conference 

  • The party’s ‘moderates’ have mellowed and accepted that a Corbyn and McDonnell ticket is here to stay, at least in the short term.   
  • However, a number of Labour frontbenchers made thinly-veiled leadership pitches with strong performances to the Conference floor – most notably Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer.  
  • The Labour Party’s continued ambiguity on Brexit will be enough for now. Keir Starmer has been praised in some quarters for putting an option of a second referendum on the table. However, as we near the end of Brexit negotiations, Labour will need to reach a position which satisfies the membership’s support for reversing Brexit with MPs in leave-voting constituencies.  
  • Automation and the impact of AI on jobs, particularly the low-paid and low-skilled end of the economy is a real worry, and will be the focus of a Labour Government when in power.  
  • Labour are looking to reboot their digital policy with a forthcoming green paper covering everything from online harms and regulation, to infrastructure, to skills provision. This will be aided by the launch of ‘Labour Digital’ a new initiative within Labour, led by Darren Jones MP, to consider many of these issues.


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