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Frances O'Grady (above) was engaging company at the #Lab17 CWU reception. Emma Francis' delegate report is below.

I haven’t been to Labour Party Conference for 12 years – not since my daughter was born – having been an annual attendee for the nine years prior to that. However, I’d never been a delegate before, so I was intrigued to see what it involved and whether conference had changed much.

First off was the London Labour reception.  It was packed, with the fantastic new MP for Battersea, Marsha de Cordova, introducing London mayor Sadiq Khan.  Sadiq gave a rousing speech, heralding the new London MPs and thanking us all for the campaign we’d run in May. I then introduced myself to Jess Phillips MP – the loud-mouthed Brummie who’s a favourite of mine thanks to her focus on women’s rights and her general willingness to speak her mind.  She gave me a hug!!!!!! 

Next morning it was the London Labour briefing where we were told how conference works.  It truly is a confusing system.  So many different types of votes and not all very democratic.  For example, there were two ballots – one on the subjects that would be discussed that week (called the Priorities Ballot) and one on who should sit on the National Constitutional Committee (Labour’s disciplinary committee).  You only get one ballot paper per constituency and while it’s meant to be decided by a discussion between delegates, in some cases it came down to which delegate got there first.  I was extremely disappointed that a debate and vote on Brexit was not prioritised, given that it’s the biggest issue facing our country (it was also the subject with the most contemporary motions from CLPs, after the NHS, which was also not debated). I later learned that Momentum organised their members to not vote for the Brexit debate – apparently to spare the blushes of the leadership. 

The theme for that first day was ‘Protecting Communities’, which kicked off with a speech from Diane Abbott (who said that her biggest priority as Home Secretary would be keeping people safe. She also promised a full inquiry into Orgreave).  Delegates were then invited to address conference, but to say they played fast and loose with the theme would be an understatement!  One great contribution was from Kingston & Surbiton member Tony Kearns (also Senior Deputy General Secretary of the CWU) on climate change.  His parting remark was “There are no jobs on a dead planet”. 

We also had to get to grips with a new procedure called ‘Referring Back’.  Basically, the key document that conference is there to discuss is the National Policy Forum report, which is a summary of the all the work of all the National Policy Forums.  If a delegate objects to any part of it, they can literally stand up at any point and say ‘I want to refer X back’, which then requires them to speak and then for a vote to be taken.

There was also a bit of argy bargy on the first day as the National Exec Committee had put Sadiq Khan on the agenda to speak, and Momentum had organised their members to argue that he shouldn’t be allowed to speak (as they wanted more time for ‘ordinary members’ to speak).  I voted in favour of hearing from him – I think that the Labour politician with the biggest mandate in the UK is worth hearing from.  The Conference Arrangements Committee assured delegates that our other metro mayors – such as Andy Burnham – would get a chance in future years.

One delegate raised the lack of debate on the crisis in our children’s mental health.  I also would have liked a debate on this issue and therefore was glad to meet her at the Young Minds and Labour Campaign for Mental Health reception later that evening.  Krystal Finan – my co-secretary of our CLP – is also the Secretary of the LCFMH, a great organisation which campaigns on this crucial issue.

The day’s conference debates finished with a great speech from Labour’s leader in Wales, Carwyn Jones.  He likened the Tories’ approach to Brexit to Dante’s nine circles of hell.  He commented, “Dante had Virgil as his spiritual guide, David Davies has Nigel Farage”.

Monday kicked off with a debate on Brexit and Internationalism (but with no vote).  I tried to speak in support of a ‘reference back’ to insert a ‘pause’ in our policy on departing the EU.  However, I didn’t have an inflatable parrot or a brightly coloured scarf, which other speakers used (successfully) to attract the attention of the chair.  A disabled delegate raised the issue that it’s unfair that speakers are selected on this basis, as it favours the able and the noisy (and the owners of inflatables).  During the debate the divisions on Brexit became apparent, but no-one argued with Labour’s basic principle that any deal should have jobs and workers at its forefront. The session finished with Emily Thornberry  – shame she felt the need to include a stab at Tony Blair and Chuka Umuna in an otherwise barnstorming speech -  and Keir Starmer, who trod a very careful line of keeping everyone happy with our approach to Brexit. I do not envy him his job.

They were followed by a debate on the economy.  Dave Ward, another Kingston & Surbiton member (and also Gen Sec of the CWU) called for a publicly owned Post Office bank and fast broadband for all. He was followed by John McDonnell MP, who talked about his aspiration to bring back all PFIs “back in-house” and to renationalise rail, water, energy and Royal Mail.  I’m a supporter of renationalisation of key industries but I do think there are other things we should spend our money on first, such as removing the benefits cap, the NHS and education.

There are fringe meetings throughout the day at conference. On Monday I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work’s session on what we can do to support more women into leadership positions.  Monday night was top celebrity night – Tony Kearns invited all three K&S delegates to the CWU reception, where he introduced us to Labour Party Gen Sec Ian McNichol, Angela Rayner MP, Angela Eagle MP and Frances O’Leary, Gen Sec of the TUC.  Jeremy Corbyn addressed the reception – the first time I’ve heard him speak live.

Tuesday was very procedural, with an initial debate about whether we should accept the Conference Arrangement’s plans for the day, which put everything back a couple of hours.  It was eventually passed with a card vote (for the first time we got to use our voting cards – which only come out when the result of delegates raising their hands is not clear). Rebecca Long-Bailey then spoke about industrial policy, including a commitment to 60% renewable or low carbon energy by 2030. Angela Rayner followed with a speech on education – it was great to hear about her plans for a National Education Service (providing education from cradle to grave), a promise to pay teachers properly and a commitment to reverse the cuts to SureStart. I also tried to speak in the education debate to request that a Labour Government undertake a review of the pressures we put on our children in school, and the resulting impact it has on their mental health.  I was not successful (I refer you back to my earlier comment about not having an inflatable bird to wave around).

Following a visit to the Musicians’ Union fringe at lunchtime (which made me think we could enlist their help to save the Hippodrome in Kingston), we returned back to the hall to hear from guest speaker Naomi Klein.  She focused heavily on climate change, and described a Labour win in the UK as a “moral imperative”.

Following some more votes, I then departed for London as I had to visit a secondary school with my son (he’s about to leave primary school). I was therefore able to watch Jeremy’s speech from the comfort of my armchair (although the atmosphere in my sitting room is not quite that of the conference hall). A great speech with a commitment to make housing the priority for a Labour Government – something I’m sure the voters of Kingston & Surbiton CLP will welcome.

So, to conclude, conference was a mixed bag.  There were some highlights –fantastic speeches, good debates and old (and new) friends.  There were also some real disappointments – the lack of vote on Brexit, the unwillingness of delegates on the conference floor to hear from those with a differing opinion, and lack of democratic processes in some areas.   I have been a Labour Party member for 23 years and yet when I voted on one issue, a delegate behind me said loudly “Who are these people?  They should leave the party”. The Labour Party has always been a broad church and I believe it’s essential we remember this (and indeed embrace it) if we are serious about winning the 60+ extra seats that we need to in order take power.  The UK desperately needs a Labour Government.  Let’s remember it’s the Tories we’ve got to beat in order to make this happen, not each other!

PS if anyone is interested in seeing any of the conference literature please let me know – I have saved it all! 

Emma Francis

#Lab17 Delegate Report - Emma Francis

  Frances O'Grady (above) was engaging company at the #Lab17 CWU reception. Emma Francis' delegate report is below.

 Labour Shadow Cabinet at #Lab17 Brighton

Delegate Report from the 2017 Labour Party Conference in Brighton from Mel Gomes below.

Although I joined the Labour Party when Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister, the 2017 Party Conference was the first I have attended in person.

When the Labour Party was last knocking on the door of power in the mid-nineties, the annual party conferences broadcast on television lasted throughout the week and were decent daytime viewing for students with an interest in politics. Then, the Leader’s speech was on the Tuesday with the Deputy’s speech wrapping things up by the Friday lunchtime.

Over the years, with cost being the driving factor, the existing key elements of Conference – networking; information and debating; showcasing policy ideas; and some arbitrary decision making - are now scrunched up into a shorter-time frame, with the 2017 Brighton Conference formally starting on the Sunday morning and lasting until a Wednesday morning session of policy seminars followed by the Leader and the Red Flag.

Networking started before Conference was formally opened though, and as one of the Kingston and Surbiton CLP delegates I attended the reception for London delegates on the Saturday evening; as I was entering the room I met up with one of my co-delegates, our CLP Secretary Emma Francis. During the reception we took the opportunity to speak to fellow London delegates and MPs, introducing the name of our CLP and our work in their consciousness.

Emma is the perfect colleague to have in this situation, with a wealth of London Labour contacts in the room from all her hard work for the party over the years. With these contacts, plus networking with others we hadn’t met before, we were able to speak with several people about our desire to increase Kingston and Surbiton’s councillors and general election vote share, and explain our local comparative success in the 2016 Mayoral election.

The London Mayor was at this opening Saturday reception himself.  After being welcomed on stage by new MP Marsha De Codova, Sadiq Khan roused the room, speaking of all the London gains in the recent general election and the public servants who have served the capital so well under his leadership. He was a great advert for the Labour Party throughout Conference, connecting both with party members and members of the public in Brighton: totally at ease with everyone, friendly, stylish and completely natural.

As an opener to Conference the London delegate reception was busy, with later speakers including John McDonnell. As well as delegates, fellow attendees included MPs Yvette Cooper, Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy and Wes Streeting, who were all friendly and mingled with delegates long after the food and drink ran out, which was actually minutes into the two hour event, a fact that brought to mind the idiom about the Party’s ability to organize a good night out.

A better organised reception came on the Monday evening, and was fruits of the labour our own CLP Executive Committee (EC) member, Tony Kearns, for the Communications Workers Union (CWU), where he is the Deputy General Secretary. Speakers included party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the CWU General Secretary Dave Ward (one of our CLP constituents), and Tony himself.

Amongst the guests we had conversations with were the wonderful TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, the warm and friendly Shadow Deputy Education Secretary Angela Rayner, party General Secretary Iain McNicol and former cabinet minister Angela Eagle. It was an enjoyable event, and the CWU continues to be a great friend of the Kingston and Surbiton Labour Party.

Another worthwhile session outside of the main conference was the Labour Campaign for Mental Health and Young Minds fringe event. It was also another event where one of our EC members, Krystal Finan, had a hand in bringing together. Krystal, the President of the Labour Society at Kingston University and a tireless campaigner for Labour Campaign for Mental Health, here took the microphone at the front of the stage for Young Minds to question the guest speaker, MP Luciana Berger.

Luciana, President of Labour Campaign for Mental Health, is a fantastic champion for mental health and for the young and has achieved real change in her position on the Health Select Committee. She spoke about the change in parity of esteem and holding the government to account to ring-fence funds promised.

Like Emma and Tony, Krystal is a great asset to our EC, which brings together experience of contemporary fast-paced working environments, professionalism and talent from across the party, enabling a robust, intelligent CLP governance structure.

The fringe events were often the best place to get information and debate, with the main hall having the feel of a pantomime crowd more interested in cheering or booing rather than listening to any considered debate which itself was thin on the ground, with speakers from the floor too often picked on the basis of the objects they waved in the air and many speaking past their allotted time, often saying nothing of any consequence other than to deliberately generate noise from the echo chamber.

There was a vote at the start of conference about the priority of debates with each CLP having the opportunity to propose four debates, but it was a farcical situation, open to abuse, with delegates able to block vote without any consultation or notice to the others in the delegation, simply by virtue of where they were sitting by chance in regional briefings and so being taken to the main hall queue first for logistical reasons. 

With Brexit, a topical issue that will have an impact on every other aspect of major policy, not being selected for debate on the floor as a subject in its own right as a result of the Priority Ballot, it was no surprise every fringe event that touched on the subject was packed to the rafters, with delegates leaving the hall early to attend Brexit sessions and many on both the Sunday and Monday having no further admission due to maximum capacity in rooms more than half an hour before they stared.

One session that did touch on Brexit that both Emma and myself did actually manage to get into on the Tuesday, in a bigger room at a location further away from the main conference venue, was the Musician Unions’ “What does Brexit mean for music?” With arbitrary decisions looming on visa, potential implications on National Insurance and the negative impact on importing vinyl from manufacturers, the answer was predictably gloomy, however, notable to the Kingston and Surbiton CLP, “Keep Music Live” was a theme of the session, which is in keeping with our own campaign to save the live music venue, The Hippodrome, in the borough.

Away from the ugly patterned carpets of the hotel meeting rooms and back to the main hall, speakers from the floor contributed with varying degrees of insight in varying degrees of heat. It was particularly hot in the hall on the first day but amazingly there were no water points to be found in the venue, with stewards stumped at the question and poor signage little help.

Poor climate control on the air-conditioning and the first morning in the hall was stuffy, with plenty of hot air. The first speaker from the floor as conference started came from a CLP that could afford to send 19 delegates, which while maximizing their CLP’s chance of getting a delegate on stage may not have helped the party coffers with a potential General Election on the horizon. Rather than any positive contributions, he used what he seemed to treat as three minutes of rag week fame to ask that the Mayor of London, our Labour City Mayor who is elected to represent and protect 10 million people, should not be invited on stage during Conference. Shamefully, there were more speakers from the floor who got up to the podium in the first half an hour to flaunt their insecurity to say that this great symbol of Labour aspiration and diversity, a British working class Muslim son of a bus driver, shouldn’t speak at party Conference with the weak reasoning, as one said, he was on TV too much.

This was not the only time, sadly, when the Party was not shown in the best light from the floor, with the Chair having to warn early on about respect to speakers when a young delegate was booed as he defended our mayor. But embarrassingly for our Party, boos returned again for another young speaker who was talking in the wide ranging but time limited Internationalism debate, when he called for us to remember our outward looking, progressive Internationalist tradition and consider staying in the Single Market. A strange reaction from some in the crowd who were surely campaigning with the Labour Party for the same thing less than 18 months ago.

Even worse, on the Tuesday afternoon, a delegate who was speaking against the NEC and leadership backed motion about discipline within the party against hate crime, was cheered when comparing the stance of no tolerance on abuse to thought crime. Following the first three days in the hall, including that contribution, the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) outlined in its report on Wednesday 27th September 2017, the final day of Conference, that all speakers should be treated with respect, explicitly reminding all in its closing paragraph that there is no place for either anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia.

The guest speaker at Conference spoke on Internationalism. Fears that it might have been Seamus Milne were unfounded, and it was Naomi Klein, who encouragingly spoke about divesting money from fossil fuels into low carbon housing.

However, for Labour, having just lost a General Election against a party who ran the worst campaign by an incumbent in living memory, there was less confidence in her assertion that a model for successful campaigning was that which allowed the Bernie Bros to attack Hillary Clinton and who achieved a result of being a runner-up to the runner-up. In this brief reflection on the last US Presidential race, it may have also been worth mentioning data protection or corrupt state interference, which would have fitted in the Internationalism bucket, but there was no word on either.

As well as Kline, there was also a range if interesting contributions from elected members that spoke in the hall, notably Shadow Cabinet ministers, with the aforementioned Angela Rayner standing out. With an underlying theme about how government can give empowerment and independence to individuals, she spoke about the direct influence Sure Start had on her life as a mother and how the next Labour Government will reverse the Sure Start cuts to funding, which has been halved by the Tories and Lib Dems since 2010.

John McDonnell reminded all the progressive change that came from Labour Governments under Atlee, Wilson, Blair and Brown, while also talking about the fourth industrial age and investing in renewables to create a de-carbonised economy.

The industrial change is a key theme Labour must lead on in a rapidly changing world, and it needed to be mentioned. McDonnell mentioned the “high value, high productivity” coming age, but there wasn’t any exploration of it in the main hall or how, for example, Internet of Things (IoT), is on the verge of creating driverless cars, yet speakers from the floor were harking back to conferences in the eighties while disrupters in the current gig economy space were not well received.

Other big themes were also largely left well alone. As we potentially break away from our European partners, there was no commitment to keep Defence spending in line with inflation, in a world where Russia are relying on the apathy of leaving everything to the UN, where they have a veto, and Trump and his North Korean counterpart step up their war of words.

Meanwhile, there were other spending pledges, but no detail on how utilities could be taken back into public ownership under the market rate or how the following expenditure on operating costs would be better value to existing public servants who desperately need pay rises in line with inflation, rather than robust regulation for private companies.

Similarly, there were mixed signals on investment to help public services, with McDonnell’s pledge to abolish PFI, which also seemed contradictory to Dennis Skinner’s contribution which immediately preceded it, when he received a standing ovation from many for saying the Government should borrow like private companies.

Isolationism and protectionism isn’t going to work in a mixed economy and the party has big themes it must take the lead on, including:

-          The Fourth Industrial Age;

-          Brexit;

-          The threat of terror and wars from nations, rogues states and extremists;

-          The domestic suffering following the economic illiteracy of austerity;

-          Climate Change.

These need clear thinking and Conference is where solutions should be presented from the paid professionals who can showcase policy ideas that must win both hearts and minds in order to be in a position to implement real transformative change the country, and wider world, needs.

Conference is a great platform for this, either as a Government, or Government in waiting. The arbitrary voting on rule changes and contemporary motions took time away from this, and there were delegates who were shambolically voting on things having not been in the hall for the debate, when they should have been listening and using their own judgement on which they were elected, rather than raising their hand due to a pre-conceived or factional disposition.

In this now recognised new industrial age, when conference is broadcast on television, via the internet and social media channels and CAC daily reports are electronically distributed, it seems an outdated notion that voting on proposed rule changes or motions takes place in conference, when it could easily be done at another time either by an elected governing body or on a one-member-one vote basis, when each member is trusted to use their own judgement.

There were minor gradual improvements in the main conference hall during the days such as cooler air conditioning after the Sunday, the change in the logo placement on the backdrop of speakers and the recognition of the Chairs to pay less intention to the flags, hand puppets and inflatable dragons when selecting speakers. Showcasing policy rather than contributions picked randomly would be better for the party and it would a shame if the dragons and muppets dominated the conference floor again next year.

While there is always room for improvement, Conference was a great experience and I can report back that there are many, many great people in Labour Party, all with the best intentions, and often very good company.

Being a delegate involves lots of time, work and committment, and the days are very, very long, but it was a pleasure to listen, learn, network and spread news of the good work of the growing Kingston and Surbiton Labour Party.

Mel Gomes

#Lab17 Delegate Report - Mel Gomes

  Delegate Report from the 2017 Labour Party Conference in Brighton from Mel Gomes below.

 

Phil Bevin with John McDonnell

Phil Bevin with John McDonnell at the 2017 Labour Party Conference. His report as a Delegate is below.

Main conference

Several journalists have remarked that this year’s conference was the site of complacent jubilation, with many delegates suffering from the delusion that Labour had won the 2017 General Election.

This was my first time attending Party conference, so I can’t compare the atmosphere to previous years but to me the air was thick with an almost tangible sense of relief. Coming at the end of two very difficult years of disunity and a snap election that many predicted would mark the end of the Labour Party as a serious force in British politics, most delegates – many Jeremy Corbyn supporters among them – were simply jubilant to be out of a long dark tunnel with the clear destination of a Labour government now firmly in sight.

The atmosphere crackled with a renewed sense of excitement and purpose; the enthusiasm was further energised when delegates realised that, this time, their conference votes would make a difference. Yes, there were still a few too many anodyne contemporary motions welding together clichés that nobody in the Labour Party would ever think to disagree with and it was a shame that the vast majority of CLPs proposing rule changes were pressured into remitting. But Conference 2017 was the site of real change; the number of Parliamentary nominees needed for a leadership candidate to find a place on the ballot was reduced to 10% and more constituency representatives added to the NEC (increased to nine). Both developments are a step forward in Labour’s democratisation and a flavour of the new spirit flowing through the party’s membership, who had more opportunity than ever before to take the stand in the main hall.

The most enjoyable part of the main schedule was the Leader’s Speech. I’ve always thought Jeremy to be an underrated speaker; what he has sometimes lacked in polish is more than made up for by the sheer number of ideas and policies that he crams in.

While much of the media fretted about Brexit this week, Jeremy outlined a progressive vision for the future of the nation. His speech was a big, yet intricately detailed and fully realised picture of a possible future of the nation under a Labour government. Epitomised by his promise to allow council estate tenants to vote on regeneration proposals, Jeremy’s aim, it seems, is to spread the new feeling of openness and accountability emerging from the Labour Party across the UK. This will be a new political settlement that hands democratic power back to the people, respected as citizens, not patronised and exploited as consumers. If we are to make our exit from the EU anything like a success, we should first decide what sort of country we want to live. While the Liberals gaze through rose-tinted spectacles at battles already lost and the Tories’ Brexit policies increasingly become the site of collateral damage in a bitter civil war between some of the most timid big beasts in the party’s long and ferocious history, only Labour is looking to the future.

Fringe events

Some of the most well attended and interesting fringe events took place under the banner of Momentum’s “The World Transformed.” I’m now a member of Momentum myself and have seen the group work hard fighting for the election of MPs from all wings of the Labour Party. Locally, many of our most dedicated campaigners are Momentum members so it was no surprise to hear serious and considered reflections on how to introduce new members to the structures of the Labour Party, which can be an intimidating maze of bureaucracy, as well as the difficulties posed to Labour’s success by a mainstream media that is populated almost entirely by graduates from the same schools, who have little idea of the thoughts and needs of ordinary people.

I encountered some of Party Conference’s most sobering realities at these fringe events. First among them is the difficulty that new activists have being accepted into the structures of local parties, many of which have experienced long term decline but would rather place their faith in the comforting contours of the familiar downward track to oblivion than seize the opportunities and the brave new possibilities that our new members offer us. Unfortunately, this story was frequently told by new activists, many of whom had received a hostile reception from existing party members. Next to winning elections, ensuring that new members feel at home in the Labour Party to stay with us for the long haul is our greatest challenge. They are the Party’s future, we must listen to them.

On Tuesday evening, I attended the Labour Representation Committee fringe – busier than ever – and was lucky to stand next to John McDonnell as he candidly outlined the challenges facing a future Labour government: if we could take solace from the possibility of a future in government, he made it very clear that our greatest challenges lie ahead. Labour’s journey to a world transformed for the many, not the few was always going to be more an uphill climb than a walk in the park but we are at least on our way.  I’ll post a more thorough thoughts on this report soon.

Many thanks to Kingston & Surbiton CLP for giving me the opportunity to attend #Lab17.

Phil Bevin

#Lab17 Delegate Report - Phil Bevin

  Phil Bevin with John McDonnell at the 2017 Labour Party Conference. His report as a Delegate is below.

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