Labour conference has begun in earnest – earnest being the operative word, as Brighton finds itself swamped with Jeremy Corbyn’s credulous acolytes, buoyant from the success of their hero’s election campaign, just three months ago. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, told conference this morning that ‘we stand on the shoulder of a giant, and that giant is the Labour manifesto 2017’. Rapturous applause greeted him but it was nothing compared to the applause that filled the hall a few minutes later when a tinsel-furnished portrait of Jeremy Corbyn was paraded across the floor.
— Nick Hilton (@nickfthilton) September 25, 2017
It was accepted that the divisions of the 2016 conference would be put aside this year, with both sides of the party coalescing over the uplifting election result. The party’s ongoing fractures over issues like Brexit and Trident are being sidelined in favour of a kumbaya unity that is as much for the cameras as it is for the delegates. Labour moderates’ line – that Corbyn was electorally toxic – has been so thoroughly undermined that they have conceded the 2017 conference to the Corbynistas, allowing them to fill Brighton with a somewhat premature triumphalism.
With Labour polling at 42 percent, ahead of the Tories, they must now be seen as a government in waiting. And with Theresa May a lame duck and all her heirs apparent at loggerheads over Brexit, the question is as much about the scale of Labour’s victory as it is about the result itself. The biggest impediment to Corbyn’s occupancy of Downing Street is this tendency towards self-mythologising, especially when it runs wildly ahead of reality. Theresa May received almost a million more votes than Corbyn, but if you turn up to Tory conference next week with an oil painting of the Prime Minister, you’re more likely to be sectioned than applauded.
In 2016 the most hagiographic impulses in the party were marginalised into Momentum’s side-conference, ‘The World Transformed’. Now the line between Momentum’s festival and the Labour party conference is porous to the extent of non-existence, despite Momentum still not being officially affiliated to the party. Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott (as well as such luminaries as Russell Brand and Paul Mason) will be speaking at Momentum events this year, a significant step-up in quality of speaker. The world has truly been transformed. But Momentum is not the forum for the critical debates the Labour party needs to have before its next election campaign, and the attempt to take Brexit off the debate table was as counterproductive as it is counterintuitive.
It used to only be the fringes of Labour that were seduced by Jeremy Corbyn’s mysterious glamour, but now the party at large has embraced it. The official Labour party shop at the conference is flogging endless Corbyn merchandise, featuring slogans like ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘I’m with Jeremy’, whilst Momentum are shifting Run-DMC style COR BYN t-shirts and ‘The Absolute Boy’ momentos. These two outposts of capitalism are now almost indistinguishable from each other.
There’s no denying that this faddish sensationalism won voters in the run-up to this year’s election, but it cannot be sustained at this hysterical intensity until 2022. The desire to outwardly project unity, even at just an iconographic level, skirts around the real introspection that the Labour party should be getting out of the way in the years before it needs to fire up the election machinery again. If Corbynism isn’t a cult – as they are so fond of claiming – now is the time to prove it.