Labour conference: Five things to look out for in Brighton

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Back in Brighton – the scene of Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference as leader in 2015

Labour’s annual conference starts in Brighton on Saturday.

With Brexit and a possible general election on the horizon, what will be making the headlines over the next five days and what are likely to be the main flashpoints?

1) Brexit battles

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Delegates will vote on the party’s Brexit policy on Monday

Labour will want to talk about other things, but the reality is that Brexit is going to dominate much of the proceedings and the media coverage.

In the run-up to the conference, the leadership has tried hard to craft a position which it hopes can bind different groups together and minimise the potential for splits and divisions.

If he wins power, Jeremy Corbyn has said he will negotiate a new “sensible” Brexit deal and then put it to the people in another referendum – asking voters to decide between leaving on those terms and remaining in the European Union.

The Labour leader, who backed remain in 2016 despite being a life-long Eurosceptic, has so far resisted pressure to say which way he would campaign if there is another vote, insisting he would carry out the wishes of the people.

Other senior figures have not been so coy, however, with Emily Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer and Tom Watson all saying they would personally back Remain – and Mr Watson calling for the party to “unequivocally” come out in support of staying in the EU.

The Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish Labour parties are also all pro-Remain.

With the leadership and the unions much more cautious, this faultline in the party is likely to be on show ahead of a vote on its Brexit policy on Monday evening.

The final wording of the motion will not be clear until Sunday – when it will emerge from a convoluted process of sifting known as compositing – but the language will be crucial if Labour’s different factions are to be kept on board.

2) Election date

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Graham Eva

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An election is around the corner – so will the scarves come out again?

Labour MPs voted against an early general election when Boris Johnson gave them the opportunity earlier this month.

The leadership says it wants a poll on its own terms and it will support one after the Brexit deadline has been extended and a no-deal exit on 31 October is ruled out.

Labour badly wants power but, as everything with the party, it is not as simple as that – and the whole issue of election timing could rear its head in Brighton.

Some MPs, most notably Tom Watson, want to prioritise stopping Brexit via another referendum. Others in Leave-supporting areas want to get out of the EU with a deal before going to the people.

But with the membership and unions strongly behind him, expect the Labour leader to portray himself as a prime minister in waiting in his closing speech in Wednesday.

This is the fifth time Mr Corbyn has addressed conference as leader and, as ever, his tone will be interesting. Will he seek to reach out to floating voters he will need to win a majority?

3) Dissent

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Deputy leader Tom Watson has been at odds with Jeremy Corbyn over Labour’s stance on Brexit

Before the conference proper gets under way, a move to oust deputy leader Tom Watson has sparked outrage among senior Labour MPs.

An initial bid to abolish Mr Watson’s role was made at the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting on Friday by the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, but it failed to get the two-thirds majority needed.

Former Labour leader Ed Milliband gave his backing to Mr Watson, but a Momentum source told the BBC: “We just can’t afford to go into an election with a deputy leader set on wrecking Labour’s chances.”

Elsewhere, Labour has been in opposition for nearly a decade and, according to some opinion polls, is trailing behind Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Since last year’s conference, nearly a dozen MPs have quit the party amid anger over its policy on Brexit, its record on tackling anti-Semitism and claims of bullying and factionalism.

With other MPs facing the threat of de-selection via trigger ballots, there is a sense of a growing disconnect between the party at Westminster and in the country at large.

Disagreements about Labour’s values and future direction are never far from the surface, as an ongoing row about the decision to disband the Labour Students movement has proved.

While the prospect of an imminent election is likely to help unity, there could be dissent – as much over issues of political culture and the internal machinery of the party as policy.

4) Radical ideas

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Getty Images

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One policy motion calls for private schools to be integrated into the state sector

Moves to democratise the conference and give it a direct say in policymaking have been a running theme since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015.

Momentum, the campaign group born out of his leadership bid, has said delegates will seek to “write” the election manifesto and insert a host of “radical” ideas aimed at putting the “people and the planet before privilege”.

Each day will have a different theme – it’s public services on Sunday, the economy on Monday and the climate emergency on Tuesday.

Before all that, on Saturday, there will be a vote on which motions should be debated, with the 20 most popular submitted by constituency Labour parties and affiliates going forward.

Some of the more eye-catching proposals include:

  • Integrating all private schools into the state sector, removing their charitable status, redistributing their assets and limiting the number of their pupils going to university
  • Moving to a four-day, or 32-hour, working week, with no loss of pay
  • Closing all detention centres and replacing them with community alternatives
  • Ending all airport expansion and re-wilding 25% of British land
  • Moving to zero-carbon emissions by 2030
  • Powers for local authorities to compulsorily purchase empty properties

Expect a lot of brightly coloured clothing to be waved around as delegates seek to get called to speak.

If they do get lucky, they won’t have long, as the majority of speeches will be limited to two minutes.

5) Healthy living

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As an alternative to politicking – there will be football, running and aerobics on the agenda

Conferences are legendary for their long hours, free drink and late-night carousing, with exercise often the last thing on people’s minds.

Labour has always tried to do its bit to counter these stereotypes, hosting an annual football match between MPs and journalists.

This year ex-England footballer Paul Elliott will captain one of the sides while there will also be a women’s match against a Lewes FC’s veterans’ eleven.

And some of the party’s leading lights will also be putting on their lycra elsewhere.

Health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth is doing a pier-to-pier run early on Tuesday while Tom Watson, who has chronicled his successful fight against diabetes, is taking part in an aerobics session on Wednesday to mark National Fitness Day.