Tension in the sea air as Labour searches for its soul in Brighton

Harder than it looks. Reuters/Luke MacGregor

If there a word that captures the atmosphere at the 2015 Labour Party conference in Brighton, it’s “tension”.

During the New Labour reign and then the Ed Miliband years, the annual gathering was closely controlled by the party machine – from the carefully choreographed, “spontaneous” strolls by the leader to the on-message interventions by the frontbench. It was little more than the scripted politics of spin and slogan, as apparatchiks mouthed empty phrases tested to destruction by focus groups and ad agencies.

Now there is much talk about a radical new beginning, an attempt to go back to the roots of Labour and recover the party’s lost soul.

Whatever Tony Blair or Gordon Brown’s professed principles, New Labour created a cold, transactional, utilitarian type of politics. It came to represent liberal London and first won and then lost the majority vote in England, culminating in popular rejection at the 2010 election.

Miliband sought closure from the Blairite-Brownite war but there was neither a real reckoning with the record nor a coherent alternative. So the 2015 rout was worse. Labour lost everywhere to everyone and is now absent from large swaths of the country.

Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory in the leadership contest has certainly generated great enthusiasm, boosting the number of members and supporters. While the main conference hall features the usual spectacle of shadow ministers parading their latest policy proposals, the fringe meetings are full of tension between the Corbynistas and their critics.

Corbyn’s win has created a climate of debate across the party unseen since the days of John Smith and the early Blair era. There is plenty of potential for creative tension and new thinking.

At the same time, there are many who fear the emboldened hard left – and they are to be found at the conference too, even though many have stayed away.

Just one big family. Gareth Fuller/PA

They doubt whether Labour can reconnect with the voters who went elsewhere in the last election. Can Corbyn’s protest politics appeal to those millions of socially conservative, skilled working-class and lower middle-class voters who value work, family and their country? Can it win back those 2m lifelong Labour backers who voted either Tory or UKIP for the first time in May?

There is fear that Corbynmania at conference is more like Corbynmadness for the rest of the country.

Dusting off Labour values

One question that crystallises the depth of divisions within Labour is welfare. In one fringe meeting, we heard very moving testimonies about the sheer scale of the party’s disconnection from the people. Traditionally Labour was the party of work and contribution, but now it is widely seen as the party of welfare and entitlement to benefits.

Ordinary people do not like the Tories and their divisive language of strivers versus skivers, but they do not trust Labour to spend their taxes fairly.

To them, Labour seems to promote a culture of “something for nothing” by being too generous to people who are not prepared to work hard for a living. It also defends a culture of “nothing for something”, holding in contempt those who contribute to society – pensioners who have worked their whole lives and now find themselves in poverty, women who care for children or those who look after others in their communities. To many people, including some in the party itself, Labour purports to represent people whose contributions to society it doesn’t do anything to honour.

Here the party can learn from the churches, which view welfare as much more than just a fiscal transfer or a service provision. Like intermediary institutions such as charities or social enterprise, the churches consider welfare as a form of support to foster a sense of personal growth and development and a sense of contribution to family and community.

Welfare is at its best when it fosters participation, releasing hope and sustaining love. Labour and the churches share a fundamental credo that human beings are vulnerable, and that someone has to be there when we fail and fall.

If Labour wants to actually act on that principle, it needs to embrace the tension between the human capacity for virtue and for vice. A real alternative to the impersonal forces of both the controlling state and commodifying capital is a welfare system that rewards virtuous action and discourages vice such as greed or sloth.

The debate on welfare shows that Corbyn’s victory has opened up a new space in which Labour can once more try to reconcile estranged interests and engage with exiled traditions. The new leadership has a choice: it can either make space to allow new ideas to flourish, or impose its ideology on the rest of the party.

So far, the new leader and his controversial shadow chancellor have trodden carefully, but there are big tests awaiting them. Watch out in particular for difficult decisions on Britain’s military intervention in Syria and on George Osborne’s autumn statement.

Compared with the stale politics of Whitehall and Westminster, Brighton really has been a breeze of fresh air. Soon we’ll see which way the wind is blowing.