Not wanting the Tories to corner the silly-season dysfunction market, today’s papers report that Labour may not let Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham address their conference this year.
According to the Sun, traditional speeches by the Shadow Cabinet are set to be cut back this year in order to give more floor time to the Opposition’s greatly-enlarged membership – the Guardian reports that attendance by members is likely to be the highest in 30 years.
Only Jeremy Corbyn and four of his colleagues will have a ‘starring’ role: John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor; Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary; Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary; and Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary.
The paper reports that other shadow ministers have had their “times cut”, whilst the party’s two elected mayors have not yet been invited to speak at all.
Now it seems very unlikely that Khan and Burnham will actually be barred from speaking at conference. It just invites them to set up a fringe event and will create stories about party splits during the conference, which is usually an opportunity to get some good press.
But the fact that these stories are running highlights how June’s election result has emboldened Corbyn and his supporters, and failed to heal the deep-seated divisions within Labour over his leadership. Why else would there even be a question about whether or not two of a party’s most powerful national figures could address its highest-profile annual event?
Assuming they do speak, it will be interesting too to see how they adapt their messaging to the new, post-June reality of an apparently-competitive, Corbyn-led Labour Party.
Last year, when Khan made his speech on the theme of “Labour in Power”, he was able to draw on the apparently clear contrast between himself, as a proven election winner, and the dire straits the national party had found itself in under hard-left leadership. June has changed all that, and Corbyn’s critics now face the much trickier prospect of explaining why they still oppose him even if he could win.
But that message is going to go down very badly with much of the membership, many of whom feel that the election (whilst still only delivering second place against the weakest Conservative campaign in living memory) has validated their decision to elect and then stand by Corbyn since 2015.
If there really is going to be much more time set aside at Labour Conference for members to speak, any anti-Corbynite who puts their head over the parapet can probably expect at least one furious rebuke – from the conference platform – by a rank-and-file supporter. Perhaps the prospect of such flashbacks to the chaotic Labour conferences of the 1980s is why the leadership is so wary of letting Khan speak.