Engaging with Labour: Conference 2019 and beyond

Boris Johnson only walked through the door of Number 10 in July, yet the feeling remains that Jeremy Corbyn could be on course to snatch the keys at short notice.

A tumultuous September has seen a resurgent Corbyn instrumental in Parliamentary manoeuvres to block a no-deal Brexit on 31st October, with Johnson looking boxed-in and short on options. This year’s Labour Conference presents an opportunity for the party, after nine years in Opposition, to capitalise and stake their claim to power ahead of a likely November General Election.

Yet, the leadership’s equivocation over their stance on Europe, the biggest issue since the Second World War, risks haemorrhaging support to smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats. The pro-European membership, trade union movement and the clear majority of Labour’s voters who voted Remain may never forgive Corbyn if his policy does not shift unequivocally to Remain. And soon.

Internal wrangling has re-surfaced again just days before Conference, with party chiefs declaring war on Labour Students, whilst the summer was spent pushing ahead with re-selection procedures for all sitting Labour MPs.

Ultimately, however, the Conservative Party’s own internal strife means that businesses must brace themselves for structural changes to the economy under a Corbyn Government. For companies both big and small, the radical and transformative nature of the Labour Party post-2015 means that engagement poses a specific set of challenges.

Labour will seek to re-nationalise sectors of the economy, unshackle trade unions and strengthen employment rights for workers. Increased regulatory oversight coupled with changes in employment legislation mean that risk is not isolated to targeted sectors of the economy; all businesses will be impacted.

Provided that organisations can position themselves effectively – as a delivery partner in building an economy “for the many” – the inauguration of a Labour Government could be a moment of huge opportunity.

So, what lies ahead for Labour?

How Labour make policy

Labour has three main institutions for creating policy – the Policy Commissions, Annual Conference and the Manifesto Team.

The Policy Commissions, each convened by a Shadow Cabinet member and prominent members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) present proposals at the annual conference – the party’s ultimate decision-making body.

Before Conference begins motions from across local Labour parties (CLPs) and trade unions are presented to the Conference Arrangements Committee. Once motions have been accepted, they are then grouped into categories; for example, on Brexit or health policy.

CLPs and unions then integrate their motions into a “composite” motion that is palatable, with final composite motions debated on the Conference floor. If a composite motion is accepted, it becomes official Labour policy – as was the case in 2018 when Labour “kept all options on the table” on Brexit.

The policies are then refined and developed by the Manifesto Team, which is led by Jon Trickett MP – who is in charge of “preparing for government” – and Andrew Fisher who wrote Labour’s 2017 manifesto. The Clause V team, featuring Trickett, Fisher, the unions, the NEC and Shadow Cabinet will ultimately finalise the party’s offer to the British people.

Motions at this year’s Conference

This year’s Labour Conference will be dominated by the grassroots campaign for the party to adopt a Green New Deal. 128 constituency parties (CLPs) have submitted their preference for the policy to be debated, which if successful would apply huge pressure on the leadership to adopt a zero-carbon emissions target by 2030. The Green New Deal has been backed by the pro-Corbyn Momentum group, and includes provision for unionised ‘green’ jobs and greatly enhanced public ownership.

Brexit will also be front-and-centre of Conference. Over 90 CLPs have tabled motions relating to the issue of a generation, with 81 explicitly calling on Labour to back Remain in a second referendum. Interestingly, no motions have been put forward in support of Brexit.

Finally, and perhaps as a sign of the increased radicalism amongst the Labour grassroots, Conference could see a debate on a 4-day working week and the abolition of private schools; with the latter backed by Shadow Cabinet members and former-Leader Ed Miliband.

Towards Labour’s first Queen’s Speech

Whilst the Green New Deal is likely to be integrated into Labour’s manifesto ahead of November, it is unlikely that major changes since the last General Election will be announced.

Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in 2017 committed to more than £100 billion of new spending but wisely reassured the electorate that strict fiscal rules akin to New Labour in 1997 would be applied.

The ambitious catalogue of social and economic reforms to how Britain fundamentally works means that Labour will act quickly once inside Number 10. An end to zero-hours contracts, and a significant increase in the National and London Living Wages will likely be flagship legislation, driven forward by the leadership and championed by MPs. A further ambition will be to repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act.

McDonnell has committed the party to wide-reaching changes to taxation with a 45% levy applied on those earning £80,000 and above, with corporation tax increasing from 19% to 26% over three years.

Labour’s list of priorities also includes the implementation of a National Education Service of lifelong learning, an energy price-freeze, and of course the re-nationalisation of rail and the utilities.

An opportunity – Prioritising Engagement

Beyond Conference, the Labour Party is influenced by five core powerbases, but key stakeholders for companies include the leadership, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Shadow Cabinet.

Meanwhile, the trade unions and the membership, although important, would not have access to the levers of Whitehall or the electorate to call upon if Labour formed a Government.

On this point, it has been intriguing to note that the leadership have not been averse to ignoring both the unions and membership over the European question, despite Corbyn’s pledge to make Labour a member-led organisation.

  • The Leadership: The Labour leadership are openly scornful of the private outsourcing of public services, and have demonstrated a long-standing commitment to anti-war politics. Many of them, including Jeremy Corbyn, are ideological Eurosceptics.

The leadership will be crucial targets for businesses seeking to influence policy, with the Leader of the Opposition’s staff, including Seamus Milne and Karie Murphy, holding significant sway over top-level decision-making in the party.

  • The Wider Shadow Cabinet: Labour’s Shadow Education and Business Secretaries, Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey, are Corbyn allies who have been singled out as potential future leaders from the left. Meanwhile, Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, recently set up a social democratic caucus within the Parliamentary Labour Party, which commentators viewed as a move to establish a parallel powerbase against the leadership.

A number of Shadow Cabinet members are independent-minded moderates who are not afraid of putting their stamp on policy. Identifying points of divergence with the leadership over policy could permit re-thinks.

  • The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP): The PLP continues to diverge from the leadership on many policy issues, with the vast majority of MPs seeking a second referendum on Europe. Similarly, on anti-Semitism there has been public outcry against the leadership. Organisations that are able to isolate pressure points over policy are likely to garner backbench approval and political capital, underlining the importance of backbench and constituency engagement.

It is also worth keeping a watchful eye on the output of left-leaning thinktanks, including the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Blairite organisation who have since pivoted to Corbyn’s agenda, and the Resolution Foundation whose influence can be seen throughout Labour policy.

Provided that companies can position themselves as delivery partners in building an economy “for the many”, Labour’s entry to Government need not be a threat to your license to operate. Opportunity comes through planning and strategic engagement, guiding the party amidst the uncertainty, division and inexperience that pervades the Labour movement.

Luke Downham, Public Affairs

We’ll be down in Brighton for the Labour Conference so if you’d like to discuss how we could help you, please get in touch with the team.