Labour’s conference is starting this weekend in Liverpool, just across the water from the Wirral where the party is in turmoil and the Birkenhead MP Frank Field has resigned the whip. We will see if party managers can deliver a united front on the conference floor. On the fringes tensions over anti-Semitism and deselection of MPs will be harder to suppress.

However there are straws in the wind that the swing to the left may have reached its peak. Major unions, which in the past have curbed militants, raised their voices at Wednesday’s National Executive meeting (see below). There are also suggestions that John McDonnell has had enough of the anti-Semitism row and wants to reign in the ultra left.

On the policy front things don’t look much easier for Jeremy Corbyn. He is coming under increasing pressure to back a people’s vote on Brexit. He will want to resist it because he has been against the EU since we joined. He sees it as getting in the way of a socialist programme which includes supporting employment in ways that the EU’s State Aid rules don’t allow. But frustration is building, significantly within some trade unions who see their members jobs under threat from a chaotic Brexit. Some party members think Labour could get ahead in the polls by striking out in a Remain direction. But the party is in a bind as complex as the Tories over Brexit.

In the North especially, the Labour Leave vote was strong, and the fear is that a clear move towards a second vote or remaining in the EU might lose the party seats in the smaller northern towns.

This is the second round of conferences since the General Election and the main opposition party is normally miles ahead of the government in the polls. That is not the position this time. Jeremy Corbyn will make his leader’s speech with the party neck and neck with the Conservatives or even behind. Level pegging with a party tearing itself apart over Brexit and presiding over a country where social problems continue to mount! Unemployment may be at a record low but there are massive problems with housing, elderly care, prisons and transport.

Corbyn is right that these issues need to be addressed, even in a radical way. The problem is that many people do not believe he would be an effective Prime Minister quite apart from the baggage he brings with him from his past and present.

For instance, when even the left dominated National Executive Committee was trying to settle the anti-Semitism row earlier this month, the leader of the party had to be defeated on an unhelpful amendment.

The party’s National Executive will meet again on the eve of conference to discuss  the idea an open selection system for MPs. Supporters of change argue that the current “trigger ballot” system forces members to vote against their sitting Labour MP in a negative way to get a contest. An open selection would allow people to vote positively for the candidate of their choice. The sitting Labour MP would be one of them. The problem is they would potentially be very vulnerable to Momentum activists keen to oust opponents of Corbyn.

Another flashpoint that has been avoided for now is the influence of party members over Labour councillors. This was a huge issue in the early 1980s and is back under discussion again, but decisions have been put back to a review next year.

So, with internal splits, anti-Semitism and Brexit it looks like a tough conference ahead for Labour.

Watch John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor is a hard leftist, but he also wants the party to break out of the morass and offer a credible alternative to the discredited Tories. He may be leader before long although without the cries “Oh John McDonnell”.

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It is distressing to see the hurt and division caused by the anti-Semitism row that is splitting the Labour Party. Accusations are flung back and forth people, but more than one thing can be true at the same time. I would suggest that the following things have elements of truth in them.


The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has spent his life fighting racism in its widest sense. However, he deeply believes in the creation of a Palestinian state and strongly objects to the methods used by the Israeli army to crush Palestinian dissent. In pursuit of this cause he has sometimes aligned himself with people who are rabidly anti-Semitic and want to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

Let’s say Corbyn was careless or naïve. That mattered because he was a member of parliament but the significance of his lack of judgement has changed dramatically since he became leader of the Labour Party and potentially Britain’s next Prime Minister.

When this row started he could have made a comprehensive statement regretting his past associations, clearly stating Labour’s position on Israel and Jews and crucially giving a high profile to the party’s action in expelling anti Semites from the party. People like the person who wielded a poster with the shocking slogan “For the Many Not the Jew”, at a pro Corbyn lobby of Westminster recently.

His failure to do these things shows his inability to manage and lead a political party.

Finally, the refusal to accept the widely agreed version of anti-Semitism is believed to be because many of his close associates would be in trouble for past breaches of that code.


I hope most people in the Labour Party believe that Israel has the right to exist without being threatened by the Arab states around it or by Palestinian terrorist action.

Leaving that fundamental premise behind there is much to criticise in Israel’s current behaviour. The excessive use of force on the Gaza border, the illegal settlements in the occupied territories, and the recent constitutional changes which described the settlements as having “national value”. The reforms went on to downgrade the status of the Arab language and explicitly declared for the first time that Israel was the national home of the Jewish people. Israel is rightly angered by those who describe it as a racist state. It is important therefore that we hear more about its respect for, and welcome of, the Arab minority within its borders.


A final aspect of this controversy that can also be true is that some of Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies have found this row a very convenient way of attacking him in a wider sense.

Many Labour MPs, perhaps a majority, think he is incapable of achieving a General Election victory or of being a capable Prime Minister.

If this anti-Semitism row undermines his leadership so much the better say some privately. This has led to a bunker mentality in the circle around Corbyn which partly explains why this crisis has gone on for so long.

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The political tide should be running strongly for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. In the week when he has tightened his grip on the party’s organisation, the collapse of construction giant Carillion gives powerful weight to his arguments against privatising public services. The NHS is always a strong Labour card and the continuing crisis in our hospitals also plays well for him. There’s nothing much left for Labour to win in the North this year but a bad result for the Tories in the London borough elections is widely forecast.


That may happen. But at the moment Labour has the slenderest of leads in the opinion polls despite this blundering government. So I went to the capital last weekend to try and find out why. The Fabian conference is the first big political gathering of the New Year. The Fabians are one of the oldest groupings within the Labour Party with a position on the left, but not Corbyn left.

The speech of the impressive Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, was delayed by a bunch called the White Pendragons who wandered around filming their demonstration and brandishing anti EU slogans and an American flag. The previous day their hero Donald Trump had made disgraceful remarks about people from Haiti. But the President’s supporters regard that as evidence that he is one of them, something to think about as the “very stable genius” marks his first year in office.

But I digress, the underlying issue that rumbled through the day was Brexit. Wes Streeting, a rising star representing the centre of the party, declared that Labour was the biggest stumbling block to the UK remaining in the Single Market beyond the transition period. At the moment Corbyn and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer say that beyond the two year transition, they want to be as close as possible to the Single Market. Streeting believes there is a majority in the Commons and the country for permanent Single Market membership. He claimed a “jobs first Brexit won’t get us through 2018.” Is Labour’s tightrope act on Europe the reason why they are not surging in the polls? I’m not sure, Nor, sadly, am I sure there is a Commons majority for demanding long term Single Market membership. Even with ex Cabinet member, Justine Greening, on board, the Tory Brexit rebels have gone quiet. Look at the comfortable votes for the Brexit bill in the Commons this week. And Labour Brexiteers like Frank Field, Graham Stringer and Kate Hoey can’t be relied on.

When Starmer spoke, you could hear a man tortured by the political dilemma of it all. Labour should support EU membership with its support for workers rights. But Starmer is worried about defying the decision of the voters. He had to remind the London audience that there were lots of Labour voters in the North that wanted a clean break from the EU.

The Shadow Brexit Secretary did remind us that Labour would submit the Brexit deal to a stiff series of tests, but could they get a Commons majority to vote it down and then win the consequent General Election?

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The May government is rattled by the growing perception that they are not serious about the Northern Powerhouse. So, it perhaps would have been easier for the Conservatives to be meeting in their other conference city, Birmingham. The city has been confirmed as the UK candidate for the 2022 Commonwealth Games following the election of a Tory West Midlands mayor. In Greater Manchester we elected Andy Burnham who has expressed his outrage at the decision to downgrade the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester rail line whilst giving the go ahead to Crossrail 2 in London.

We know the government is rattled because last week I was present at a meeting in Manchester where the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, came out fighting over his government’s transport spending. He told a startled business audience that he was going to slay some myths and rattled off a whole series of road improvements from Cumbria to Cheshire before tackling rail. His argument seems to be that electrification could be an old hat solution and bi-modal trains with state of the art technology could be the answer.

The issue is sure to come up at a conference where the Tories are reeling on many fronts. Whereas I saw Jeremy Corbyn lauded at every turn in Brighton for losing the General Election, Theresa May comes to Manchester having “won” but with the worst Conservative campaign in living memory. The Tories are past masters at preventing unrest breaking out on the conference floor but there is sure to be some raking over of the General Election coals at the fringe meetings.

Europe will also be an issue to watch at the Manchester conference. The prospect of us effectively being in the European Union until 2021 has angered the hardline Brexiteers. There will be plenty of them in Manchester Central. The Tory activists who come to conference have always been very Eurosceptic.

Besides the Northern Powerhouse, the poor election campaign and Europe, the main challenge for the Tories this weekend will be to answer the growing opposition to austerity and cuts. Labour is shamelessly promising everything to everyone, even acknowledging that if they came to power there could well be a massive run on the pound. Nevertheless, they seem to have caught a tide of opinion against pay curbs, high rents and homelessness. The Tories’ austerity programme has been in place for over seven years now and people are fed up. There are some signs that ministers are recognising this but that can spell danger. Small concessions don’t necessarily assuage the anger. They can make matters worse as workers take industrial action to push for more and the uncertain tone from ministers gives the impression that the government is running out of ideas and is past its sell by date.

Jeremy Corbyn said in Brighton that he was a Prime Minister in waiting. It was a bold, some would say fanciful claim, but if the Cabinet infighting over Europe doesn’t stop, if the cracks are on display in Manchester, there can be no certainty over what might happen this winter.

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