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