The mood at the Labour party conference this year was noticeably more sullen than last year. No guesses why. Despite the wall to wall sunshine, the sea-side location, and the doubling in party membership, the fact remained: Labour lost the election.
Last year was very different. With an election in eight months, and a seemingly stable lead in the opinion polls, party activists gathered with a sense of hesitant optimism. I left the Manchester conference last year feeling invigorated – Labour was going to be in government. No one was to know of the devastation that lay ahead. May 8th was most definitely omnipresent in Brighton this year.
The vast majority of conference speeches were not some much dedicated to our defeat, but to what onslaught lay ahead under five more years of Tory rule. At least in that respect we were forward-looking. If it were not for the copious amounts of free alcohol, bumping into Owen Jones in a cellar nightclub and the beautiful weather, it may have been unbearable. The picture could not be bleaker. Every single Tory policy insulted every fibre of being at conference. The very future existence of the party, starkly at threat under the new Tory Trade Union Bill, took central stage. It was from this that the party tried to stand tall. And to some extent, there is reason to be hopeful.
I met many new members in and out of conference who joined since the election; even some that had joined since Jeremy Corbyn had been elected leader only two weeks before. Disgusted by the prospect of Conservative hegemony, they were ready, devoted, to begin the task of laying Labour’s road back to power. And this new energy could definitely be felt everywhere. Conference buzzed in a very different way to the hopeful optimism of 2014. This was a determined anger, a very real horrified anger, to fight back against Tory rule.
It felt electric. The election of Jeremy Corbyn had thrown everything up in the air. The rules of the game had changed. My friend from home, Harriet, and I went to a fringe event by the Labour Representation Committee (a hard left pressure group within the Labour party) because it was to feature speeches from Corbyn and its Chair, John McDonnell, in an old community centre, and this was where the change was most present. It felt very socialist. But also very authentic. It wasn’t the gleaming conference meeting rooms of the main conference site or the Hilton Brighton Metropole but an ordinary setting. McDonnell’s tear-inducing speech to the packed crowd emphasised the new socialism that was now dominant.
Labour is becoming a movement once more, a real social movement, with people dedicated and passionate about changing Britain. Just how far the party had come in a year was most obvious in our new leaders. Corbyn and McDonnell were markedly more personable, approachable, and humble than Miliband and Balls – who were constantly guarded in a bubble of advisors last year, that were bustled in and out of rooms with as little interaction with ordinary conference attendants as possible. More than once I saw McDonnell walk down the Brighton promenade on his own, being approached by seemingly people off the street. It was refreshing. Just one aspect of the new politics promised.
Despite this, I was originally very sceptical about Corbyn’s leadership. He was my second preference, after Yvette Cooper, and I remained cautious after he was elected, but at conference I changed my mind. I personally only had a very brief interaction with Corbyn – I had already got a selfie with him at one of the leadership hustings this summer – where he recalled being from Shropshire (my home county), but his composure instantly warmed me to him. He is a real gentleman of integrity and principle.
Harriet and I, and former OULC co-chair Madalena, queued for well over an hour to see Corbyn’s conference speech and I confess to being underwhelmed. I was waiting for the slick rhetoric and soundbites that never came, holding my breath for delivery to knock me off my seat. But that was when I realised that I was focusing on the wrong things. The actual content of his speech was exactly what I wanted to hear. He was softly spoken and oozed authenticity and it was at that exact moment that I realised that I was converted.
Shortly after, I returned to the house we were Airbnbing before my train back to Oxford, and I was talking to the lady we were staying with about the speech and, whilst she was excited by the potential of his leadership, she was not entirely convinced that he could be our Prime Minister. And this thought lingered with me. Can Jeremy Corbyn be Prime Minister? This is the question that he must now ensure Britain answers with “yes”. Corbyn must now utilise the real energy and excitement his leadership has generated and realise his opportunity to change our country for the better.
Image: David Parton