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!