Highlights: Labour at the Fabian 2019 summer conference

Yvette Cooper, Jonathan Ashworth and Angela Rayner were keynote speakers at the Fabian summer conference on Saturday, while Stella Creasy also spoke in the main hall. The Shadow Health Secretary made a policy announcement, and all the top Labour figures gave their views on Brexit, antisemitism and more. Here are the highlights…

Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper gave the first keynote speech, which discussed Brexit and the country’s divides more broadly. The Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford talked about the “fragile” state of the union and the abuse received by politicians, including figures such as Diane Abbott and also herself. She quoted one message that mentioned her “severed head”. 

“Around the world, hate is on the march,” Cooper told the Fabian conference. “Once upon a time, eggs and milkshakes were subversive forms of protest – but they don’t feel very funny anymore.” Turning to Labour’s role in fighting hate, she said: “I am shamed that our colleagues at the Jewish Labour Movement have been repeatedly let down. We have failed to tackle antisemitism and prejudice is going unchallenged.”

“Our party is being investigated by the EHRC because we have disastrously failed to tackle antisemitism.” She called for a “proper transparent, independent process to tackle prejudice”, which would Labour to “go back to being the party that fights all forms of racism”. The MP added: “If we say we stand for equality and respect, words aren’t enough.”

Answering questions from the audience on Brexit afterwards, Cooper was not pressed on the issue of another referendum. Instead, she was asked about citizens’ assemblies, which she favours and believes could help resolve the Brexit crisis. “I believe we should be trying to hold one in September.” she said. Although she agreed that it would be an ambitious date, she said the assembly should “feed into October deliberations”.

Turning to the European election results, Cooper explained that the Liberal Democrats were successful as they were “not the centre ground on the European question”. She said that the “centre is not the centre anymore”. From this, she concluded: “We will only be strong as a movement if we bring our values together – community identity, patriotism and a strong argument for redistributing power.”

In the short term, she said, “we’re going to have to respond in a pragmatic way to prevent no deal”. But in the longer term, the “wider challenge” is working out how to “bring strands together”. Labour wouldn’t be relevant in the future of politics if they can’t do that, Cooper declared.

Jonathan Ashworth

Before his speech, Jon Ashworth briefly addressed the issue of Labour and antisemitism in unscripted remarks, following up on Cooper’s comments. “We need to move faster and firmer on antisemitism in the party,” the shadow cabinet member said, “and continue to express our solidarity with Jewish brothers and sisters”.

The Shadow Health Secretary announced a new party policy in his keynote speech. He told the Fabians that a Labour government would introduce a Future Generations Wellbeing Act, as Labour parties have done in Wales and New Zealand, in order to address health inequalities in every policy area. Ashworth said: “A baby girl born in Liverpool can expect to live 13 fewer years in good health than a baby girl born in Richmond. 71 years after the birth of the NHS, health inequalities are rising.” He also vowed to “bring a halt to privatisation” in the NHS.

Ashworth’s speech also covered Brexit. He described it as “essentially a neoliberal pro-austerity project”, adding: “It’s Nigel Farage’s and Boris Johnson’s great swindle on working people. It will only entrench inequalities further, not alleviate them.”

The frontbencher added: “I commend Jeremy Corbyn for his efforts in trying to win support for a deal, an entirely honourable attempt in my mind. Now, though, we face the very real prospect of a so-called no deal Brexit.” And concluded: “It’s time people were given a public vote on the Brexit outcome. I would campaign for Remain.”

In the Q&A session, he was asked about the trigger ballot process that has started for Labour MPs.  “I don’t want to see any Labour MP deselected,” he said. “Our enemies are not people who wear red rosettes.”

Stella Creasy

Stella Creasy made a short speech as part of a panel on Brexit. She said the left should make an argument for staying in the EU in order to change it, and put forward four key lessons:

  1. Things can always get worse. Don’t sit this time out.
  2. Don’t dismiss your opposition, learn from it. (“We’re not actually winning the argument on Brexit. There is truth to some of the things Brexiteers say about Europe. I don’t think we should say Europe is perfect.”)
  3. Business as usual won’t wash anymore. (“We have to recognise that the fudge we’ve had isn’t appealing to anyone… Because for most people, the challenge around Brexit is not about Europe, it’s about democracy.)
  4. Show the country that they matter, not the party.

Like Cooper, Creasy spoke positively about citizens’ assemblies. She also confirmed that she will be standing for reselection as a Labour candidate. Referring to the early trigger ballot process, she said: “Before you sneer at the Conservative Party, ask yourself… What does spending our time deselecting MPs do as opposed to seeing Brexit as our priority?”

Angela Rayner

Rayner gave the final keynote speech, which was wide-ranging. She covered the Tory leadership contest (“blond leading the bland”), the economy (“increasingly divorced from our society”) , grammar schools (“failed ideological experiment”) and more.

During the Q&A session, she was asked about Labour backing another referendum and the possible move towards Remain. She made clear that party policy is now to back a public vote on any deal and said Labour had “always felt” pro-Remain.

But Rayner also said: “I don’t think trying to get a second referendum at the moment is what’s achievable. We really need to focus now on making people understand what a no deal Brexit is.” She added: “My politics are rooted in reality… We tried to put a motion down for a second referendum. We were defeated.”

The frontbencher emphasised that preventing no deal, with Boris Johnson likely to be the next Prime Minister, was the priority. “A lot of my constituents still think no deal Brexit is better than Remain. We need to be mindful of that,” she said.

At the end, she was asked about Labour and antisemitism. Of the shadow cabinet, Rayner said: “We’re totally exasperated by the total failure of our movement to be able to do deal with this issue.” Referring to Chris Williamson’s suspension being lifted, she replied: “I’m absolutely embarrassed by what’s happened over the last few days and I’ve made my representations very clear.”

Labour needs to deal with the problem, she concluded – “and if that means setting up an independent system, then so be it… let’s just get on and do it”.

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