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Labour Party Conference 2016 CLP Delegate's Report

The Kingston and Surbiton CLP's delegate to attend the 2016 Labour Party Conference was Jonnie Byrne.

Here she reports back to member's on her personal view of Conference 2016 in Liverpool.

This is the fourth or fifth LP Conference I've attended and I'm happy to report that it was brilliant!  After each previous highly stage-managed Conference, I said "Never again!"  This time, I'll definitely go back. 

There were several people from Kingston & Surbiton CLP in Liverpool last week and they have all contributed to this report, though it is my responsibility alone.

Our members were there in every capacity:  Councillor Linsey Cottington, ex-officio and a tower of strength, Pat Mortimer, as an honoured guest of the Party, in memory of her husband Jim, Rosemary Addington, helping to run the various Peace stalls, Dave Ward, Tony Kearns and Sian Jones, as trades unionists with the CWU and GMB, and Bob Phillips, a member of the 1,000 Club.  And, on a personal note, on the FBU stall, I bumped into an old friend whom I hadn't seen for some 10 years, and who, I discovered, had been working for most of that time in the building just opposite the CLP office.  Ever on the look-out for interesting speakers, I took the opportunity to speak briefly to Matt Wrack and remind him of our presence so nearby.

To me, this was a wink towards what Conference should be:  though we're still a long way from restoring Party unity, let alone democracy, it was generally good-humoured, positive and dynamic.  It was also exhausting.  Quite apart from the extra mileage involved in just getting into the building because of the "ring of steel", delegates were on their feet in the hall for much of the time.  I have never seen so many spontaneous standing ovations!  Even the security wasn't as oppressive as in past years, when delegates used to be greeted by police armed with sub-machine guns.  This time, there were no queues and just Centre staff checking passes.

Every morning, we were greeted with the very useful "Yellow Pages" guide to the day's Conference business, produced by volunteers from the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD).  Introductory and closing briefings from the CLPD were very well-attended, despite being held a mile or two from the Conference Centre.

On a less positive note, Conference was over-shadowed by the backdrop of suspensions and expulsions; in particular, the suspension of Wallasey CLP forced an agonising choice on me personally, between CLP members whom I regard as family and who, I believe, have been wrongfully maligned by false reporting, and their MP, whom I have long regarded as a friend.  This is symptomatic of divisions within the Party as a whole, and somehow, we have to learn to bury our differences, however bitter, if we are ever to appeal to the country at large, as Jeremy Corbyn and many other speakers put it so eloquently throughout the week.  Conference clearly believed that that is all that is now stopping us from winning in 2020.  Shadow Cabinet speakers flew a kite about a snap election next year, no doubt to encourage the troops and create a sense of the urgency of the healing process, but I can't see that there is either the mechanism or the will for that to happen.

Bob Phillips has introduced me to the Swedish notion of lagom, "an untranslatable word that conveys the sense of a successful group consensus in which the 'losing' side joins the consensus because they have been listened to and respected".  Perhaps that could help us?

Each morning began, as normal, with the report of the Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC).  This often sparks disagreement, as Motions are ruled in or out of order and so on.  This year, a groundswell of discontent with CAC rulings culminated in an unseemly row on Tuesday morning, concerning the refusal to discuss certain proposals which appeared to be in order, including an Emergency Motion on expulsions, the decision that Conference would have to vote on rule changes proposed by the NEC en bloc, rather than individually, and the consistent refusal of the Chair to put the report to a card vote, in apparent contradiction with the Rule Book.  By contrast, a point of order from Tony Kearns, complaining about the Sun "newspaper" being distributed in a Liverpool Labour Conference Hall, met with universal approval.

For my part, I only learnt that the Motion supported by my CLP had been rejected on the Saturday evening, through overhearing some gossip.  I still don't know why it was rejected and it would have been helpful had I been told in advance.

Otherwise, there was little of contention.  Conference is not a debating chamber these days.  The Chair did not ask for speakers for and against Motions.  There were good contributions, both from the floor and from the platform and all Composites were carried, in line with NEC recommendations.  Indeed, the only item where Conference went against the recommendation was a rule change which now allows Conference to refer back any part of a [National Policy Forum] document without rejecting the whole.  Not everyone agreed that the Balanced Energy Policy gave the correct balance (it included nuclear energy) but a pledge to end fracking was very warmly-received.  Shadow Ministers made many excellent pledges about what we would do in Government - repealing the Trade Union Act within the first 100 days, increasing Corporation Tax by 1.5% to fund a restoration of EMA and student maintenance grants, restoring nurses' bursaries and repealing the Health & Social Care Act, a progressive return of rail contracts to public ownership - but warned that we have to get there first!

The elected Mayors of Bristol and London, among others, pointed out that a successful record in our cities, as in smaller Labour-run local administrations, could do much to restore the credibility of Labour in power among voters.

Keynote speakers sought to move the ground of political debate:  Labour is no longer on the back foot, condemned for profligacy because we refused to defend our record.  Calling us "Comrades", Tom Watson said "We are the Party of Britain, of the real British values...of compassion and fairness".  Lord Dubs renewed pleas for child refugees from the Calais camp to be allowed to come to Britain seemed to underline that.

And we are solvent again!  Having paid off a massive debt by sticking rigorously to our own finance strategy, we can look forward to our increased membership to consolidate the position. 

On the Saturday, before Conference proper, the Leadership Conference was followed by Women's Conference.  After his re-election, by an even greater majority than last year's landslide, Jeremy Corbyn made the first of many pleas throughout the week to leave our differences behind and get on with the real job of fighting the Tories, so that we can put our policies into action in government.  As in the past, Women's Conference was a fairly humdrum affair but it may be livened up in the future, in the light of the rule change which will give it the power to put Motions to Conference proper.  I have reservations about this:  I would not like to see a proliferation of claims for BAME, LGBT and Youth Conferences with the same privilege.

Another rule change is likely to give a majority on the NEC to those who would rein in the Leader:  seats on the NEC for Wales and Scotland has long been a demand of the Left, who wanted delegates from these countries to be elected.  However, the rule change puts the new seats in the gift of the Leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties to appoint.

Policy seminars have become an integral part of Conference and part of most days was given over to them.  Only delegates and ex-officio attendees could participate, to discuss specific areas of policy with Shadow Ministers and others, to be fed up to the National Policy Forum.  I chose Transport, chaired by the Unite AGS responsible for Transport, Diana Holland, with Andy McDonald and Daniel Zeichner, respectively Shadow Secretary of State and Shadow Minister for Transport, where workers in the various sections of transport, user groups, advocates for school-children, pedestrians and cyclists shared their experiences and suggestions. 

It became clear during the Leadership election that there is now consensus in the LP against austerity politics.  One commentator heard on the BBC made the point that this is neither new nor especially radical, it only seems so because of the blind alley of the last 35-odd years of neoliberalism and Milton Friedman.  This year's Conference marks a return to an acceptance of Keynesian wisdom.  And we can proudly call ourselves Socialists again.  John McDonnell's closing remark that "you no longer have to whisper it" brought the hall to its feet with whoops of joy. 

Conference was very busy.  There seemed to be more delegates than in previous years - logical, given the huge expansion in our membership; by contrast, the exhibition seemed smaller than in the past but with plenty to interest.  Seeing my badge, the man running the People's History Museum stand told me that they  have a copy of the Surbiton CLP newspaper.  Lots of fringe meetings to choose from, on subjects as diverse as autism, fracking and the problem of Labour representation for Northern Ireland.  Many, unfortunately, were full.  Bob, Rosemary and I attended an excellent meeting on Free Speech in Israel (FSOI), contending that anti-zionism is not anti-Semitism and a campaign for justice for Palestinians  is not anti-Semitic.   At a meeting on the Bus Services Bill contributions were based around a report on "Building a World-Class Bus System for Britain".  The report tackles the increased costs and damage to services caused by deregulation and proposes effective solutions.  Bob went to a GMB fringe session on the Grunwicks dispute 40 years on, an evocative event which was also "a real alert about how important Grunwicks was in waking up the union movement to minority groups and to the power of secondary picketing".  Linsey, of course, was particularly interested in housing, while Rosemary's focus was on anti-nuclear.  Our CWU comrades very kindly invited us to their reception on the Monday night.

Moving as the many tributes to Jo Cox, MP were, the most moving point to me was a short video with frames recalling the past achievements of Labour in power, which preceded the Leader's final speech.  I was not a Labour Party member for most of the time of this record but I was proud to think that I now belong to the family which has given us so much - and still has so much to give, if we will only all pull in the same direction.

Johnnie Byrne,

 Kingston & Surbiton CLP Conference delegate 2016

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