What we’ve learned from Labour conference

It’s safe to say this was a Labour party conference unlike any other, with more disruption and changes of schedule than a Southern rail service.

Amidst the confusion and grumblings over the party’s Brexit position though, there was debate, innovative policies and a positivity that Labour will have a transformative manifesto capable of winning the next election.

GK were on the ground at conference and our key takeaways from the South Coast are:

The mood in the party is as unsettled as the Brighton weather

To say that the conference got off on the wrong foot would be an understatement.

The failed National Executive Committee (NEC) motion backed by Momentum founder, Jon Lansman, to abolish Tom Watson’s post of deputy leader was rejected. The fall out was Watson describing the move in the bars over the weekend as a failed “drive by shooting”. All the talk subsequently became about a vindictive move against a well-respected moderate. Not an ideal way to display a united Labour leadership

Of more profound significance longer-term was the confusion and controversy which surrounded Labour agreeing its policy on a confirmatory Brexit referendum.

Delegates rejected a motion calling for Labour to back a ‘remain’ position in the event of a 2nd referendum. The motion was voted down with a show of hands from delegates rather than a card vote. Some in the room claimed it was too close to call but others saying it was obvious that the motion had been rejected.

In the end, the alternative Corbyn-backed motion passed which committed Labour to officially remaining neutral in the event of a 2nd referendum. The reaction from the generally pro-remain membership base was one of frustration and anger at this missed opportunity. Corbyn himself came in for significant criticism for not respecting membership views on the issue – something he vowed always to do as leader.

Potential successors stepping out of the shadows

A side effect of the 2nd referendum decision was some pro-remain Labour members looking longingly at those in the Shadow Cabinet who are enthusiastic campaigners about remaining members of the EU.

Sir Keir Starmer for one stood out as a potential future leader.

His journey from a capable but slightly technocratic new MP in 2015 to the charismatic and compelling force of Brighton 2019 has been something to behold. He was given a hero’s welcome at every fringe he attended.

His own story of how he has shifted his own Brexit position to supporting a positive “European values” Labour campaign to “remain and reform” the EU from within, was a vision that will sell well to the membership. Indeed, the People’s Vote campaign would do well to follow Starmer’s approach which would be more effective than “Project Fear”.

It was also noticeable how much he is also trying not just to be defined by Brexit with lots of questions and anecdotes about his background, values and experience working on headline social justice causes such as McLibel

It would also be remiss not to mention how Rebecca Long-Bailey was incredibly warmly received by members with her ownership of the “green industrial revolution” arguably the pick of all the announcements made. Long-Bailey has long been touted as a potential Momentum-backed candidate to succeed Corbyn. She had a good conference.

No shortage of radical policies……but some could hinder the prospects of the “many”

The general feeling around conference was that Corbyn’s keynote speech – brought forward due to the Supreme Court decision on prorogation – was one of his more energetic. He desperately needed a decent performance with rumours swirling that he didn’t look like he “wanted to be in Brighton”, not a good accusation for a hopeful future Prime Minister to endure.

At times the speech was disjointed, but it certainly can’t be accused of lacking ambition with a menu of radical policies served up to members and the wider public. The most eye-catching of which included a net-zero emissions target for 2030; £250bn of infrastructure spending; Crossrail for the North; and series of measures to ensure greater public control over medicines development, supply and cost.

It’s easy to see how many of the policies announced hit the sweet spot for the membership and will also curry favour from those in the electorate not necessarily identifying as left wing. However, there is very real danger that some policies risk burning bridges with the business communities that Shadow Chancellor, John ‘Bank Manager’ McDonnell and the Shadow Treasury team have been tirelessly trying to build.

Some, if ever implemented, could also damage world-leading British industries and could have the reverse effect of what was intended.

Take, for example, the new policies to take on the pharmaceutical industry in order to provide a broader spread of new medicines at a better value for the NHS.

In Labour’s report on the issue Medicines for the Many it is acknowledged that the UK has a far lower medicines spend than in most OECD countries. The reality is that other nations look at NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care with envy in the way they negotiate on medicine pricing.

In recent years effective mechanisms have been put in place to put the Government and the NHS in a stronger position. This includes the creation of a new Commercial Medicines function within NHS England; an improved voluntary scheme for branded medicines (which caps public spend on new medicines); and a budget impact test for the medicines which could have the biggest impact on NHS finances.

The Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries (ABPI) has responded to the proposal of compulsory licensing – the seizure of new research – as completely “undermining the system for developing new medicines”.

Labour need to be careful not to conflate uptake and access of new medicines for patients with any measures that could curtail the UK’s thriving clinical research and development sector.

Life sciences R&D has been viewed as a “jewel in the crown” of British industry with a world-class ecosystem supported by top academic institutions, good access to clinical trial participants and comprehensive data sets.

Labour proposals to add more conditions to public funding of research and creating a large public sector competitor could have the effect – combined with Brexit uncertainty – of deterring international pharmaceutical companies from undertaking clinical trials in the UK. This could undo the positive intentions set out in the Life Sciences Sector Deal and, furthermore, patients could lose out on early access to medicines trialled this country that are fast tracked to some patients via, for instance, the Promising Innovative Medicine (PIN) designation and other mechanisms.

Government in waiting?

Before attending conference, I was interested whether Labour could present a united front, how they would position themselves on Europe and whether they would speak to the country rather than just their members in attendance. Your assessment of how the Party performed in relation to these is likely to reflect your overall view of the Corbyn project and his effectiveness as leader. From my perspective it was two steps forward, two steps back. Positive developments in some respects, especially on vote-winning new policies, but these were undermined by internal skirmishes and the chaos that dominated the headlines.

See more articles by Joe Cormack