Delegate Report - Labour Party Conference Brighton 23-27 September 2017
What a conference! Dennis Skinner said he had seen nothing like it since 1945. Twelve hundred delegates, 13,000 visitors and a sense of common purpose unseen for many years. With chants of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ or ‘Oh Emily Thornberry’ as the different shadow ministers took to the stage, this year’s delegates were going to leave no doubt as to the gratitude they felt to those MPs who had stood by Corbyn for the last two years. With nearly every delegate prefacing their speech with ‘Good morning. I am a first-time delegate to conference’ this was clearly going to be a steep learning curve for many and a conference like no other. The atmosphere was electric, the anticipation palpable.
Saturday was Women’s Conference, followed by Corbyn’s open air rally on The Level, attended by some 6,000 people. Women’s Conference was attended by 1,500 members and ably opened by Dawn Butler, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, who took the opportunity to announce the launch of the Labour Party’s campaign to end period poverty. Being in an acoustically-challenged part of the room, I and other delegates were somewhat confused when she kept asking us to shout out ‘We are the nominal women’ and were quite relieved to later find out that it was actually ‘We are phenomenal women’! Jeremy Corbyn was the only male speaker and he talked about issues of abuse against women in public office, the gender pay gap and WASPI women, among others. Emily Thornberry gave a rousing speech and the memory of Jo Cox loomed large, particularly with an overview given of the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme. For the first time there was a formal session for delegates to speak on topics prioritised by affiliates and CLPs: NHS and social care, housing, economic and business policy, and Brexit. Places on the Women’s Conference Arrangements Committee were won easily by the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance-backed (CLGA) candidates, Teresa Clark and Jean Crocker.
After Saturday’s high, Sunday got down to the more serious business of policy, with speeches from Diane Abbott on policing and a commitment that there would be ‘no more outsourcing to the private sector’, that there would be an inquiry into Orgreave and a review of the Prevent strategy. Ian McNichol and Ian Lavery talked about the phenomenal election result and current party membership. Much focus was placed on the importance of social media in our success. The Labour Party is now the largest political party in Europe, with over 570,000 members. National Policy Forum reports on Justice and Home Affairs; Housing Transport and Local Government; and Environment, Energy and Culture were discussed and approved.
Monday turned a new page and included barnstorming speeches from Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and John McDonnell (with many new commitments, including a personal favourite: to bring existing PFI contracts back in-house). Len McCluskey and other union leaders roused the delegates, culminating in the best speech of conference, to my mind, by Dennis Skinner. There was scarcely a dry eye in the house!
NPF reports on International Policy; Economy, Business and Trade; and Work, Pensions and Equalities were passed albeit the latter with a paragraph referred back (with a call for all Tory benefit cuts to be reversed). This is a new innovation won at conference last year whereby a report no longer has to be approved or rejected in its entirety but a part of it can be referred back to the National Policy Forum for re-consideration, if conference so desires.
Tuesday was a jam-packed day with voting for, among other things, the two available places on the National Constitutional Committee. These were won easily by the CLGA-backed candidates, also nominated by Mid Sussex, Anna Dyer and Emine Ibraham.
The last of the agreed contemporary motions were discussed, albeit briefly. These had all been chosen in a ballot on Sunday: four from the unions (growth and investment, workers’ rights, public sector pay and Grenfell ) and four from the CLPs (housing, rail, NHS, social care). As the Grenfell motion was to be backed by the unions, this meant there was no further role for Mid Sussex to play but all of our points were included in the final motion, which was phenomenally moved by Matt Wrack from the Fire Brigades Union and seconded by the Association of Local Councillors. Given limited time for speakers from the floor, Kensington CLP were specifically invited to speak to this motion. The motion on health, originally favoured by Burgess Hill branch, was moved and seconded by other CLPs almost in its entirety. In the end, all eight motions were passed unanimously along with two emergency motions on Bombardier and assaults on emergency service workers.
Rule changes. Just a few days before conference, the NEC put forward three proposed rule changes, These were: to add three CLP and one trade union place to the NEC; to reduce the proportion of MPs / MEPs required to nominate leadership candidates to 10%; and an expanded clause on prejudicial conduct. The NEC subsequently asked all CLPs to vote for these and for those CLPs with rule change motions up for debate to remit (withdraw) them in favour of a far-reaching review of party democracy to be conducted by Katy Clark, Jeremy Corbyn’s political secretary, over the next year with the aim of handing more power to party members. CLPs with rule change motions were assured that their motion would be considered within the review if they withdrew it now but that, if they refused, it would most probably fail anyway because the unions had already agreed to vote with the NEC on this matter. Much hand-wringing and doubt ensued because it meant placing their trust in the assurances of the NEC. As each CLP took to the rostrum, they gave an impassioned plea with regard to their motion, agreed to withdraw in favour of the NEC review but then said that if the review failed them for any reason they would be back next year and, effectively, ‘there would be all hell to pay’. All bar one of the motions were withdrawn. The Brighton Pavilion delegate refused to withdraw and so their motion went to a vote. While many CLP delegates, ourselves included, voted for what was in effect a good motion, as anticipated it did fail and now faces the added difficulty of being included in the review given that it has, effectively, already been rejected by conference.
Speeches came from Angela Raynor, Jonathan Ashworth and Tom Watson, among others. NPF reports on Early Years, Education and Skills and Health and Care Policy were approved albeit both with paragraphs referred back (on education, with a call to find ways to take schools back into LEA control). The reference back on the Health and Social Care Policy report is noteworthy as it was on a particular issue that had already been picked up by our CLP and for which our delegates were ready and waiting to stand up and call for a reference back. We were beaten to it by another delegate but are pleased to say that the section of the report entitled ‘The future of our NHS and an end to privatisation’ was successfully referred back as conference believed it did not go far enough in its aims. Where it talked of the NHS being ‘preferred provider’ conference overwhelmingly felt this should read ‘sole provider’ and where it talked of ensuring that ‘excess private profits are not made out of the NHS’, conference unanimously agreed that the no private profit at all should be made out of our NHS. This new reference back mechanism is truly a victory for party democracy and members’ views.
Bolstered by his new-found strength in the party, Corbyn’s end-of-conference speech was as radical as it was triumphant. Unable even to begin until after a two-and-a-half minute standing ovation, it was truly the speech of a Prime Minister-in-waiting, He praised activists for the election result. He taunted the right-wing press for their ineffectual smears. He set out a bold plan for the future of our country that rejects the view that there is no alternative to the neoliberal ideology of free markets and a minimal state, that there is no alternative to Tory austerity. He criticised British involvement in both Yemen and Burma and called for a resolution to the situation of Palestine. I had never seen him so statesmanlike and so relaxed. This was truly the climax of a seismic year for Labour, which has now cemented its position as a government-in-waiting with a bold agenda. “People say you can only win elections from the centre ground,” said Corbyn. (Boo, said conference!) “But the truth is that the centre ground is not set in stone, it can and has shifted. We are now the centre ground. We are now the mainstream.” (Yay, said conference!)
Fringe and The World Transformed
There was so much to do in the evenings! I could have willingly been in three places at the same time. So many invitations, so many difficult decisions. I attended several drinks receptions (women’s reception, south-east reception, trade union reception) and these – as well as the seating arrangements, by region, in conference hall – were all conducive to some good networking with delegates from other local CLPS: Crawley, Horsham, Arundel & South Downs… There is a great desire to cooperate locally and I feel we will be able to work more closely with our neighbours in the future.
I dearly wanted to attend the launch of Jewish Voice for Labour but was unable to make it there in time. However, when I bumped into one of the founders (who wrote the contemporary motion from Hastings and Rye on conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism) she said she would be more than happy to come and talk to our CLP on the subject if we were interested. I attended a meeting of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy which was very useful, a Stand Up for Labour comedy evening and two Momentum/World Transformed-organised events: a pub quiz hosted by Ed Miliband (a huge laugh!) and a panel discussion with Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones. The enthusiasm at The World Transformed was phenomenal, the queues to get into each and every one of their events generally impossibly long (one hour plus to be in with a chance of getting in - lucky I had a placeholder in the form of my daughter!).
I was proud to be selected as one of the Mid Sussex conference delegates this year and enjoyed the experience immensely (the ‘conference fever’ you catch halfway through is no lie!) I believe this conference, together with our fantastic manifesto in June, has marked a turning point in our party, both internally and in the country at large. More space was given to speakers from the floor this year and less to prepared speeches from the party hierarchy. Assurances were given that there would be a full and robust review of party democracy over the year to come. Corbyn appeared more statesmanlike and in control than ever before and the party hierarchy – in line with its membership - more unified behind him. Our election results, along with subsequent polls on specific issues, suggest that our policies are now supported by a majority of the population. We truly are on a roll. The difficulty from this point on, of course, is keeping that momentum going until the next election, whenever it may be. In my opinion it can’t come too soon!
This is of necessity only a brief overview of a jam-packed five days so if anyone would like further information on any particular topic or any particular speech, or if anything is unclear, then do feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Elaine Bolton, Mid Sussex CLP Women’s Officer