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;
- 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.