Divided unity: the Labour Party Conference

Divided unity: the Labour Party Conference

Despite a leadership election win for Jeremy Corbyn the Labour party is still in turmoil. The party’s conference showed that they are divided as ever.

Sadiq Khan said it best: to be in with any chance of changing anything, Labour has to start winning. Not members. Not the moral high ground. But seats and elections. This can only happen if they appeal to the general public. This appeal can only take place if Labour are united as a functioning political entity.

This week I attended Labour’s Annual Conference in Liverpool. The experience showed me the current state of the Labour Party, and the urgent need for unity.

Labour’s disunity is something I had quite underestimated. The UCL Labour Party (of which I am Women’s Officer) has members with all sorts of views and, other than the occasional heated pub discussion, things run reasonably smoothly. Online, things are a different story. Anyone who posts a view in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, no matter what the subject matter, can expect to receive abuse from angry and often anonymous accounts. They can be sworn at, told to leave the party, or, worse, receive violent comments referencing their race, gender, or sexuality. I had thought that the antagonism was more concentrated in the web sphere. However, after attending the Conference, I am forced to believe this is not the case.

At the conference on Saturday, before the leadership result was announced, a lady next to me started talking about Owen Smith, Corbyn’s leadership rival, and the supposed ‘Blairites’ in the party. Words unsuitable for print were used, as were various factually inaccurate accusations. I kept my opinions to myself, in fear of what might be said to me. Then there was the announcement itself. Smith was booed, his vote count jeered and laughed at. Corbyn was announced not to thought or discussion of what this meant to the future of the party, but rapturous applause. My heart sank. Whilst there is nothing wrong with supporting Corbyn, there is an issue in seeing him as the messiah and not even considering other views- within the party, or within the general population.

My fears were furthered by various encounters with avid Momentum members at the conference, or else members of other groups who would not have previously attended. They stood outside events, handing out leaflets for Momentum’s parallel event ‘The World Transformed’. One man shouted after me that “Communism’s time will come” even after I had told him I was not interested. Labour has always been a broad church and, therefore, people with such views should be welcomed. However, I feel as if my own more moderate views are no longer accepted by a large majority of party members.

This is extremely saddening, particularly as events and speeches throughout the conference assured me that the talent lies in sections of the party many seem to oppose, particularly amongst MPs. One of the best events at the conference was run by the Fabian Society. It was called: ‘No Right to Exist: What now for the Labour Party’. A panel primarily consisting of pragmatists, who agreed that the Labour Party doesn’t have a right to exist, but has a duty to. Labour has a duty to stick up for ordinary people in Britain today- those who would call themselves ‘workers’, but also those who would call themselves teachers, carers, siblings, grandparents, or friends. Labour has a duty to people. Yet even the idea that we should appeal to the electorate was met with heckles and cries of “Blairite”.

However, I do not believe it is all doom and gloom. Nor do I believe the Labour Party is done for good, or is incapable of recovering. Tom Watson shifted the focus and made clear what Labour was capable of: “I don’t know why we’ve been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won’t win elections like that. And we need to win elections.” He highlighted the good Labour has done in office, and how crucial it is for them to govern again in order to make change. Watson was met with rapturous applause. Almost everyone stood, no matter what wing of the party they were from. This gave me hope.

Nonetheless, Twitter made it sound otherwise. Within hours, antagonism against Watson had spread. Petitions appeared demanding he resign as Deputy Leader of the Party, and he was branded as an apologist for the Iraq War. Not only was this ignoring what he had actually praised (the national minimum wage, devolution, the reduction of child poverty, the human rights act, etc.) but it ignored his message.

The thing about the Labour Party is that, deep down, we all believe the same things. As Jess Phillips made clear during a Q&A, things like social justice, an NHS, a welfare state, and education provision are in the hearts of everyone in Labour. The only thing stopping unity is a division in approach. The hope is that soon the raging, pro-purge activists realise this. Otherwise it will be too late.

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. – Jo Cox

Featured Image: Garry Knight

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