Analysis: Rival Labour factions tiptoe around raw emotions

Decisive re-election does not mean Jeremy Corbyn will have his own way on policies

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn  with deputy leader Tom Watson:  when deputy leader  Watson praised Labour’s achievements under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it was interpreted as a frontal attack on Corbyn. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn with deputy leader Tom Watson: when deputy leader Watson praised Labour’s achievements under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it was interpreted as a frontal attack on Corbyn. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

 

Among the marital metaphors used to describe the current state of the Labour Party during its conference in Liverpool on Wednesday, the most common was that of a couple who had split up but couldn’t afford to stop living in the same house.

This sense of involuntary intimacy was reinforced by the careful politeness with which the rival factions treated one another, each determined to avoid a costly confrontation.

Still, raw feelings meant that many in Liverpool were alert to the smallest slight – and to any sign of triumphalism among Jeremy Corbyn’s allies or defiance among his enemies.

So when deputy leader Tom Watson praised Labour’s achievements under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it was interpreted as a frontal attack on the current leader. And when he praised capitalism, it sounded to some Corbynistas like outright sedition.

Capitalism

Corbyn himself, still basking in his own election triumph after winning an enhanced mandate from party members, used his speech to appeal for unity. And he reassured many of his critics by acknowledging that Labour must prioritise winning elections above being a vehicle for protest.

Corbyn’s clear condemnation of anti-Semitism and the nasty tone adopted by some of his supporters on social media reinforced his conciliatory message. And his policy proposals, notably on allowing local councils to borrow for building new homes, won broad approval across the party.

Resounding defeat

Owen Smith

Some will return to the shadow cabinet. Others will seek to burnish their profiles on parliamentary committees or devote themselves to developing alternative policies.

Despite his re-election, Corbyn will not be able to get his own way on all of Labour’s policies, as his retreat this week on the issue of renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent showed. Despite his opposition to the nuclear weapons programme, he conceded that there would be no change during this parliament to Labour’s current policy, which is to renew it.

Rule changes mean that Corbyn’s allies will not command a majority on the policy-making National Executive Committee, and leadership changes in some big unions could weaken his position further in the months ahead.

In his call for party unity, deputy leader Watson said it was time to “put the band back together” in order to prepare for a snap general election next year.

They may have agreed on the lead singer and some of the songs, but finding an audience among the voting public could be the biggest challenge of all.

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