The Labour Party is starting this conference season in its most confident mood for years – even though it still isn’t in government. It’s not just the confidence of the party’s leader as he makes demands on public spending which would previously have been dismissed, but also what MPs and activists are now calling for as they stand up at fringe meetings. They may not have won an election, but they have started to regain the political narrative, and so they are in a considerably less defensive mood than over the past few years.
Take tonight’s Open Labour fringe rally. Open Labour is a ‘soft left’ pressure group in the party, though there was nothing soft about tonight’s event. It kicked off with a passionate speech from newly-elected MP Emma Hardy. She’s part of the confidently Corbynite new intake of Labour MPs, who stood because they believed the Labour leader would win them their seats when already-elected MPs were warning that everyone would lose. And she was very confident of what Labour needed to do now it was starting to get hold of the political narrative again.
Hardy’s focus was on education, which Labour has spent many years feeling rather uncomfortable on. The party set up academies when in government and then wasn’t sure how to deal with the Conservatives’ extension of that programme and logical move into the free schools programme. Hence its shadow spokesmen Stephen Twigg and Tristram Hunt had to spend as much time acknowledging their similarities with the Conservatives as they did attacking them.
Not any more. Hardy – who is an incredibly impressive, articulate MP capable of holding the room totally spellbound as she prosecuted her argument – wants the party to make clear that ‘we are Labour and we are different’. She claimed that the ‘victims of Gove’s education reforms are evident in every school across our country’ and described a ‘broken system’ in which ‘the increased branding and marketisation of education creates a McDonald’s look to many schools’. She listed failed academy chains and the waste of public money she said resulted from those failures as schools were transferred to new chains. She doesn’t want Labour to acknowledge any similarities with the Tories. She wants the party which ‘lowered the drawbridge’ to the current education system to turn against it and campaign to ‘renationalise our schools’ (taking them back into local authority control). On the basis of her performance this evening, Hardy is likely to be making these arguments from the frontbench before long – and in the newly-confident Corbynite Labour Party, they aren’t likely to be watered down.
She wasn’t the only speaker pushing for Labour to put itself out there even more. Owen Jones, who seems to be teleporting between about 10 fringes at any one minute, told activists that the party needed to be ‘permanently offensive’. He meant that it had to stay on its election footing and target high profile Tory seats whose majorities had fallen significantly in the snap election. But he could also have meant that Labour now doesn’t need to be so frightened of offending people with its policies.
That’s certainly what Tim Roache, the General Secretary of the GMB, wants. He thinks the next Labour manifesto should be even more radical than the 2017 offer because ‘the public don’t turn against us coming up with a manifesto that will feed our school kids and make sure that they’ve got a meal in their stomach’. Union leaders are always pushing their party leadership to be more radical. But Roache knows that he doesn’t have to do all that much pushing any more, because Labour isn’t in the mood to apologise to anyone.
What’s particularly significant about all this being said at an Open Labour event is that the ‘soft left’ of the Labour Party briefly joined forces with the centrists and Old Right to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership last summer. Now, all it wants to do is carry the Corbynite flag and wave it in as many people’s faces as possible.