One of the features of conference season, along with the stale sandwiches and lack of natural light, is the obsession with ‘the mood’. It’s a nebulous thing, made up of the atmosphere in the conference hall and fringe meetings, but it can tell you a lot about what a party might be up to over the next few months. Labour’s 2014 conference, for instance, felt eerily flat for a party that was supposed to be on the cusp of government. Conversely, the party’s 2016 gathering felt pretty edgy following the second leadership contest in as many years. That conference saw a very clear pulling-apart of the ‘moderates’ and the Corbynites following the attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn, and this set the agenda for the following year.
The past few days in Liverpool haven’t felt so sharp. In fact, Corbynites barely talk about their old enemies in Progress and Labour First. They now have new problems in the form of the unions and even Momentum, who have opposed rule changes designed to introduce mandatory reselection, for instance. Those who support the leader feel very much in the majority and comfortable in the party as they know it is now theirs.
What helps that feeling of comfort is a shared sense of persecution. It’s not the Blairites any more, though it has been striking that a number of top figures have been making warnings to those who are considering leaving, because the leadership is genuinely worried about the impact of a schism on its ability to win an election. It’s Labour’s old enemy, the media.
While the party’s comms team has, behind the scenes, become much more proactive in the past few months, outwardly the leadership continues to hold the media responsible for many of its problems. John McDonnell, for instance, repeatedly referred to Labour’s opponents in the press in his own speech. It’s worth a bet that Jeremy Corbyn will do the same today.
This then encourages activists to see journalists as the enemy. I was at a fringe meeting on Monday night where one member asked that journalists in the room stand up and identify themselves. The chair demurred, fortunately. Then yesterday, two activists complained at a Times fringe with Emily Thornberry that the interviewer had asked too many questions about anti-Semitism. ‘I came for a fringe about Emily Thornberry,’ said one.
These were just a few comments from a handful of members, but they do reflect the attitude of the leadership. Jeremy Corbyn rolled his eyes recently in an interview with the BBC, for instance, when the journalist was asking questions that he didn’t like. Of course, anyone who aspires to power should be able to answer questions from journalists, even ones they don’t like. And it’s not just Labour that gets difficult questions asked repeatedly. Journalists tend to crowd in on someone who obfuscates: just look at how many times Tim Farron was asked about gay sex during the 2017 election because of his repeated refusal to give a clear answer on the matter.
The tension between activists and journalists exists to a certain extent in every party. It’s a bit like the fundamentally different ideas about the world held by cats and dogs. Members and the media do quite naturally see things in a a different light.
But Labour actually plays up that tension because it helps the party’s sense of internal cohesion and unity to have an obvious enemy. The membership finds it easier to ignore the leadership’s obviously poor handling of anti-Semitism allegations, for instance, because it can blame the press for talking ‘too much’ about the story. As tensions grow between the left of the party and the trade unions, the naughty journalists who dare write up this story will become a useful device for activists to reunite. There’s nothing quite like a them-and-us situation to keep people in a political party together.