One of the reasons this seems to be the happiest Labour Party conference in a long time is that there is very little conflict between the two very different factions in the party. Before the snap election, it seemed as though Labour was going to split – or at least that what was left of it after an electoral drubbing was going to split. But the result meant that the Corbynites have won the argument and sealed their ownership of the party. The factions aren’t at war any more.
The most obvious symbol of this victory is the way MPs haven’t been given passes for the conference floor. Some argue that conference has always been about the chance for members to speak, rather than parliamentarians to pontificate at even greater length than they do in Westminster. But the sidelining of the parliamentary Labour Party after its outspoken opposition to Jeremy Corbyn was inevitable following Corbyn’s victory. Members were right about their leader’s appeal to the electorate, so they’re the ones who should have the power now.
So what are those MPs who previously opposed Jeremy Corbyn actually doing with their conference season, other than looking longingly at the bits of the hall that they’re banned from? A sizeable number have either stayed away or made flying visits to Brighton. Some have chosen to leave early, realising that there is nothing at this conference for them or those of their political persuasion, or muttering darkly about ‘cults’. ‘There’s no audience for us,’ says one. Some MPs describe themselves as ‘sleeping crocodiles’: staying quiet, staying invisible, and lying in wait for when he time is right.
Others are attending the odd fringe event where they politely try to argue that Marxism and the Labour Party are very different political traditions. At a Labour First fringe earlier this week, Chris Leslie, one of the ringleaders of the ‘moderates’ told the audience that there was ‘no place’ for Marxism in the Labour Party. But he appeared alongside Croydon Central MP Sarah Jones, who argued that there were many people of good will in Momentum who MPs needed to work with. Jones is a new MP and so hasn’t taken part in the factional battles between many members of the PLP and Momentum in recent years. But there is an acknowledgement across the party that the energy is with Momentum and its own parallel conference in Brighton. Some MPs are keen to befriend Momentum, while others who still think it represents a dangerous strand of thinking in the party have decided that the only thing they can do now is just keep quiet.
But one MP who I spoke to today was concerned that his side of the party wasn’t responding to the growth and organisation of Momentum in the right way. ‘I was speaking to some very good young sensible delegates last night who said the Momentum people sitting around them were getting text messages and WhatsApp instructions on how to vote and what was happening next. These guys had to work everything out for themselves, so there is more that can be done on this front.’
The moderate wing of the Labour Party has long been pretty useless at engaging the membership, with grand aspirations for social media engagement which fall flat on their faces in practice. For now, it seems as though the ‘sleeping crocodile’ strategy is the one winning out, because once again the moderates really aren’t sure how to respond to what is happening in what was once their party.