For one thing, of course, there’s Brexit. Since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the Labour Party has maintained a position of what has been called “constructive ambiguity” on the issue, opting to promote itself as the party that could deliver a “better” Brexit than the current government, but without offering specifics. The drawbacks of this were clear in Liverpool, where Brexit supporters and opponents clashed over whether to essentially call for a second referendum. The debate spilled outside the venue, where some demonstrators held signs asking Brexit: Is it worth it?, while others responded with signs saying Yes it’s worth it.
Further reading: The populist’s guide to scandal, Jeremy Corbyn edition
But that wasn’t the most divisive issue. Though they didn’t figure as prominently in any formal sense, the allegations of anti-Semitism that dogged the party and its leader throughout the summer inevitably lurked under the surface. Corbyn, who has personally ignited scandal himself, most recently with revelations that he once criticized British “Zionists” for having no sense of English irony, touched on the issue only briefly in his conference speech. He pledged to “eradicate anti-Semitism both within our party and the wider society,” but did not address his own comments—which, for conference attendees such as Alex Richardson, a member of the Jewish Labour Movement, wasn’t enough. “He hasn’t shown contrition,” Richardson told me. But Jo Bird, a recently elected Labour representative and a member of the Jewish Voice for Labour, told me it’s not a priority for her voters. “We knocked on over 2,000 doors in that campaign just four weeks ago and nobody raised the issue of anti-Semitism or bullying,” she said. They were more concerned with economic issues.
Ben Judah: British Jews find their voice.
But perhaps the greatest division was invisible in Liverpool—one centered not on what was said and who was there, but on who was absent. Whether because of the anti-Semitism allegations or the populist direction in which Corbyn is steering the party, some regular conference attendees opted to sit this one out—or even leave the party altogether. Sam Stopp, a former Labour representative in London, told me that this was the first Labour conference he was missing since 2011—a decision he made after he formally left the party in April.
“Being in a political party is a bit like a marriage, and it would take an awful lot for you to walk out on it. It would have to get to the point of irreconcilable differences, and that was the point I got to,” he said. One problem was the party’s poor handling of its anti-Semitism allegations; the other was the rise of the left within the party. “The centrists are basically irrelevant now—it’s not their party,” Stopp said, adding, “Those who feel that they’re clinging onto their Labour membership by a thread have not spent a load of money going to Labour conference … The people who have turned up are the Jeremy Corbyn ultras.”