27/11/2015 - Delegate notes from the Labour Party Conference 2015 - Elaine Clift.
I was privileged to be selected as the Mid Sussex Constituency delegate to this year's conference which was held in Brighton in September.
The conference ran from Sunday 27th September to Wednesday 30th but I also attended the Women's Conference which was held on Saturday 26th. For me, this set the scene for the main conference as the day was full of inspiring speeches and lively discussion. Speakers included Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman, who set out her 10 'Future points' (available on her website).
Apart from the main hall activity there were also smaller group discussion sessions on topics such as violence against women and older women's issues. The definition of an 'older' woman is apparently any woman over 50 so I found I was well qualified to attend the session, where I particularly liked MP Fiona MacTaggart's passionate presentation style and her ideas.
The day finished with a 30 minute speech by Jeremy Corbyn, in which he displayed an impressive knowledge of the history of the women's movement. Deputy leader Tom Watson attended during the day as an observer - very brave to be the only man in the hall!
Prior to the conference at a briefing session in London for the South East delegates I had been provided with a conference timetable including details of the many fringe meetings, and the policy reports on which delegates would be voting. The South East organisers promised that they would be like holiday reps at the conference to look after us and they were true to their word. It was also useful to attend the London briefing to meet some of the other South East delegates.
The main conference started with a welcome from the Brighton and Hove MP Peter Kyle and with what seemed to be the only controversy of the conference when there was a challenge to the result of a hand vote on a Conference Arrangements Committee report in which a rule change had been proposed. It is apparent that while we agree in the Party on many issues, there is division in respect of the way we are organised and run and how our policy decisions are made.
The themes of the first day were Rebuilding the Party and the New Politics. Margaret Beckett had been tasked with leading a review following the awful election result and she explained that this review would be ongoing in learning the lessons from defeat, but also from success, as a review would be carried out after every election, not just the ones we lose.
General Secretary Ian McNicol pointed out that the Tories are using the power of the state to crush opposition, evidenced by the Trade Union bill with its restrictions on strike action and the effect on Labour Party finances.
There were many speakers throughout the day and I especially liked Chris Bryant's speech and his message that we must be genuine, authentic and respectful but that we must be a better opposition to challenge the Tories, particularly on measures which were not in their manifesto.
Interspersed with the scheduled speakers were sessions for speakers from the floor. Speakers from the floor were allowed 3 minutes to speak and this allowed for many points to be made from a wide range of experience. Noticeable throughout the conference, however, was a lack of any disagreement on the motions which were discussed. I wondered if this is to be expected in a party in opposition, particularly when in opposition to a government oblivious to the effect of its policies on the poor and vulnerable, or whether it is the legacy of the period of top-down policy making which Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to change
The first day also included a short film as a tribute to Harriet Harman highlighting her successes in equality issues such as getting child care on the mainstream agenda as it is now for all political parties.
The Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland reports were presented, again with inspiring speeches from Kezia Dugdale (who had also spoken at the Women's Conference) Carwyn Jones and Vernon Coker, and the day ended with a delegates' vote on the Better Politics Policy Commission annual report which was carried.
The Contemporary Motions Priorities ballot had also taken place during the day. This ballot was to decide which of the motions submitted by Trades Unions and constituency parties would be discussed during the conference. It was widely reported in the media that Britain's Defence Capability could or would be discussed at conference but this was just one of the 12 available motions from which the 8 with the most votes would be timetabled. The Defence Capability was not one of the 8 subjects chosen, which were Austerity and Public Services, Employment Rights, Europe, Housing, BBC licence fee, Mental Health and Refugee crisis. The motions for each were quite detailed and were set out in the Conference Arrangements Committee daily reports.
The 5 pm conference finish lead to a scramble to get to fringe meetings, many of which took place in the Grand Hotel and the Hilton Hotel, adjacent to the conference venue at the Brighton Centre. When studying the fringe meetings schedule I had been puzzled that some speakers seemed to be appearing at two meetings at the same time, and had assumed some sort of misprint, but as the days went on I realised that a feature of the conference would be the rushing about from one place to another in an attempt to be in two places simultaneously. I think some people may have actually achieved this.
I was disappointed to find my first choice of fringe meeting was already full. This featured the political commentator Owen Jones and others on 'Austerity, where next for the Left?. I came across Carol and Dave Andrews at the hotel entrance and they informed me the room was already packed so instead I attended a meeting organised by the Union Unite about the Robin Hood Tax Campaign. This is a campaign for a financial transactions tax (FTT) - a small tax imposed on the sort of short term transactions designed to make quick profits for the few but which can destabilize the economy and discourage long term investment. The panel included Polly Toynbee, Alison McGovern MP and David Hillman from the Robin Hood Tax Campaign and we were promised by the Chair that the meeting would be attended later by a special guest. This turned out to be John McDonnell (with attendant press) who confirmed that a FTT would be something that a future Labour government would consider.
I had time to attend another fringe meeting that evening and as I desperately needed something substantial to eat and I have an interest in animal welfare, the RSPCA 'beer and curry' event in the Grand Hotel seemed to fit the bill.
The RSPCA representative David Bowles gave a talk highlighting the evils of the puppy trade - it seems that most puppies bought in the UK are animals that have been produced in factory-like conditions, especially those sourced through the Internet. Kerry McCarthy, the new shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also spoke. She responded to the comments that had been made suggesting that as a vegan she is unfit for the post, by pointing out that climate change denier Owen Paterson had previously been in this Secretary of State role for the coalition government.
The beer and curry were excellent, and with table service and cloth napkins it was like being at a posh wedding reception but with more interesting speeches. The event was funded by the RSPCA but I hope the donations collected met the cost and that it was worthwhile for them.
The weather over the 5 days was glorious and it was very exciting attending the conference each day and chatting to the campaigners outside the venue who were lobbying the delegates as they arrived, and also seeing so many faces familiar from the television. A Labour lobbying group, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, provided what I considered to be a helpful newsletter each morning with their take on the proceedings. In the conference foyer and around the building there were over 150 exhibition stands, so plenty to look at and think about. I had quite a mountain of campaign material by the end of the conference. In addition to the exhibition stands the Party had organised various training sessions, and events for special groups such as new members and Labour councillors.
The themes for the second day (Monday) were Britain and the World, Work and Business, Stability and Prosperity and Stronger, Safer Communities. The format for conference was similar each day with speeches from the shadow cabinet members and NEC members followed by sessions of debate from the floor. Debate on the contemporary motions was also timetabled over Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in addition to emergency debates on motions on the Redcar steel crisis, human rights in Colombia and the situation in Syria.
Alan Johnson spoke in his role as leader of the Labour Europe campaign, giving reasons why we need to stay in Europe, stating that change was a process not an event and that there was no progressive case for leaving Europe. He suggested that 'sulking near the exit’ would achieve nothing and that it is not Europe which is the threat to trade union rights or human rights.
Maria Eagle thanked the Armed Forces for their dedication and said that over 5000 refugees or migrants had been saved by navy ships. She spoke of the difficulty in anticipating events such as the rise of ISIS and the war in Ukraine, and the danger from tory imposed cuts to the Services.
Glenis Wilmott (leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party) warned that the Tories will turn the UK into a 'neoliberal tax free wonderland' and that trade deals with the United States would include no protection for the environment and would not make the UK more progressive.
Diane Abbott and Hilary Benn also spoke in their roles as shadow Secretary of State for International Development and Shadow Foreign Secretary.
A motion on Employment Rights was moved by Len McCluskey who spoke about job insecurity and said that construction workers were particularly hard hit by the lack of employment rights in their industry.
The morning session finished with John McDonnell's speech which many will have seen on television. He stressed that Labour's policies on the economy will be tested and tested before implemented.
At lunchtime I attended a fringe meeting entitled 'The Big Insurance Rip-Off' hosted by MoneySupermarket. It wasn't quite what I expected being limited to the process of car insurance automatic renewal but I am now somewhat wiser about how insurance companies rely on what is called 'customer inertia' to downgrade the terms of insurance policies while putting up premiums. It was interesting to learn, however, that Moneysupermarket has a campaigning arm on the side of the consumer.
The Monday afternoon session was chaired by MP Keith Vaz who was very funny, although throughout the conference the atmosphere was friendly and good-humoured despite the serious issues being discussed. The session continued on the Work and Business theme with speeches from Owen Smith, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and NEC member Ann Black. The motions on the Redcar Steel Works and Austerity were debated.
At 4 pm conference adjourned for Policy Seminars which were held in the small meeting rooms in the Hilton hotel. I attended the Work, Pensions and Social Security Seminar, where delegates had the opportunity to make suggestions to formulate Labour policy. I was disappointed that shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith left the seminar early in order to talk to the press but fortunately this wasn't the pattern for the seminars I attended on the other days.
I had chosen another fringe meeting featuring Owen Jones (Labour Assembly against Austerity) but again it was already full so on this occasion I decided to call it a day and go home. However, watching the television coverage in the evening made me wonder if I had been at the same conference as the one being reported. Unfortunately even the BBC seems to have an anti-Labour bias.
By Tuesday morning I had well and truly contracted conference fever and I couldn't wait to get down to Brighton. Conference started again at 9.30 am but I was there at 8.15 with time for a coffee and a chance to have a go at Guide Dogs for the Blind's swimming duck obstacle course designed to demonstrate the difficulty a blind person has avoiding cars parked across pavements. They are campaigning for stricter enforcement to stop pavement parking.
Tuesday was the day of the leader's speech so there was a particularly exciting atmosphere, although I was pleased that Jeremy Corbyn had been regularly on the bench throughout the conference listening to the speeches and debate.
Tuesday's themes were Living Standards and Sustainability, Taking the Fight to the Tories and continuing with Stronger, Safer Communities, but the session started with the result of the ballots for NEC trade union section and National Constitutional Committee CLP section. I had not been mandated by Mid Sussex on this and I voted for Gary Heather who came second to Judith Blake who was elected.
MP Stella Creasy gave a speech as the representative of the Co-operative Party, and her speech was followed by speeches by NEC member Diana Holland, Lisa Nandy (Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Kerry McCarthy and Lilian Greenwood (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport). Discussion included the nationalisation of public services, with the example of the success of the East Coast Main Line, regulation of bus policy and the importance of public transport in alleviating social exclusion. Tosh McDonald from ASLEF said that the three bidders for the Northern Rail line were the German, French and Dutch state railways and that increased tax on coal had resulted in coal being stockpiled to avoid the payment of tax. He suggested that the privatization model doesn't work. Manuel Cortes from the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (who was our guest speaker at the 2014 Tapas evening event) said that the Labour party now had a leader and shadow cabinet who supported public ownership.
Jonathan Ashworth (Shadow Minister without Portfolio) gave a speech on 'taking the fight to the Tories’ but although I have written in my notes that it was an excellent speech unfortunately I haven't written anything else! I shall look out for him on Question Time and hope he continues to impress.
During the morning we also heard the local government report presented by Jim McMahon who questioned whether Labour councils should be implementing tory imposed cuts, and the morning session finished with debates on the Housing and Licence Fee motions and votes. All the motions debated throughout the conference were carried.
We had been advised to be back in our allocated seats sharp for 2pm for the leader's speech or risk losing them, but I had time to attend a lunchtime fringe meeting organised by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) on 'After the election - a vision for the future'. This was chaired by Daily Mirror political editor Kevin Maguire who really does seem to be on our side. Daily Mirror columnist Ros Wynne-Jones outlined how important it is for Labour to be the voice of the vulnerable and Tim Roache from the GMB also emphasied the importance of Labour putting pressure on the Tories and challenging their policies.
The main hall was packed in the afternoon as we waited to hear Jeremy Corbyn's speech. He was introduced by Rohi Malik from Islington Labour Party who explained how she was the daughter of immigrants who were grateful for the opportunities Britain had given them but who had also made a contribution to the country. Jeremy Corbyn spoke for over an hour and many Labour Party members will have seen the speech live or broadcast later in the day. Television cameras and journalists were present in great numbers throughout the conference and we had been advised in the pre-conference briefing to be aware of the presence of the media.
Conference adjourned at 4.00 pm for more policy seminars and on this occasion I attended the Economy, Stability and Prosperity seminar which was chaired by Margaret Beckett and with John McDonnell, Angela Eagle and Seema Malhotra. John McDonnell emphasied again here how Labour's policies on the economy would be rigorously tested. He made notes of the points made by the delegates and I was impressed by his willingness to listen and the attention to detail. Angela Eagle has already been building networks in the business world. She had already spoken several times during the conference and seems competent in her role as shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Determined to see Owen Jones in at least one fringe meeting I arrived very early for the Liberty Fringe Event as the food and wine was still being laid out. I'm not sure how I still managed to miss out on the food by being too far down the queue, but I did get a glass of wine and a seat. Shami Chakrabarti was the Chair and the main theme was the tory threat to the Human Rights Act. It was a very interesting meeting with an impressive line-up on the podium - Diane Abbott, Charlie Falconer, Keir Stamer, Emily Thornberry, Owen Jones and Andy Burnham. Points were made about the huge reduction in cases (420,000 to 52,000) since the cuts to legal aid and how this denies justice to all but the well-off, and the tory threat to the Human Rights Act and the negative message which would be sent to the world if the HRA is abolished or watered down in the UK. The role of the media was also discussed. Owen Jones said that Human Rights was an unpopular subject but that human stories were needed in the press not statistics and that HR could be a source of national pride. Diane Abbott said that Jeremy Corbyn's campaign has demonstrated how out of touch the mainstream press is. Andy Burnham said that we must not bow down to presentation before principle.
The conference ended with a shorter day on Wednesday, closing at about 2.30 pm with no break for lunch, but the day started with more policy seminars. This time I chose (from three options) the seminar on Crime, Justice and Immigration, where the themes again were the tory changes to legal aid and court and tribunal fees and the erosion of access to justice for the poor. However, the thinking seems to be that a justice system better than the existing one has to be put in place by the next Labour government - it isn't just about reversing changes made by the Tories.The seminar finished at 10.30 am which allowed no time at all to get from the Hilton hotel to the Brighton Centre for the conference start at 10.30. Even after 4 days I had failed to learn the trick of being in two places at the same time, so on this occasion I was a few minutes late for the start.
The themes for Wednesday were Health and Care, and Education and Children but the emergency motions on Columbia and Syria were also debated, and the theme of Stronger, Safer Communities was also carried over, with speeches from Charlie Faulkner and Andy Burnham. Andy Burnham's speech was particularly well received. The motion on Syria was carried and called for the Parliamentary Labour Party to oppose the UK becoming involved in bombing in Syria unless 4 specific conditions were met.
Jeremy Corbyn has appointed Luciana Berger as shadow Minister for Mental Health with a mandate to get mental health the same status as physical health when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. Both Luciana Berger and Heidi Alexander (shadow Secretary of State for Health) gave speeches in this session.
The day also included a speech by London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan, whose father was a bus driver. He spoke about the housing crisis in London.
After the last session of voting, the conference ended with the speech from Deputy Leader Tom Watson, and the singing of the Red Flag and Jerusalem.
Attending the conference was a fantastic experience and I would recommend all Party members to go if they can - either as a delegate or an observer. This conference was particularly exciting following the leadership election. I think I felt especially engaged as Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson were both my first choices on the ballot paper, but in the hall there was a great feeling of unity and respect for all points of view. With the new shadow cabinet the number of new faces was overwhelming at times but I was impressed at how many knowledgeable and talented people we have - no doubt their names and faces will become familiar as they feature in the press and on Question Time. It was brilliant to see our party reflected in the diversity of the delegates, and also that there seemed to be as many women as men at the conference.
I can't deny that it was like being in a bubble and it was easy to forget that we have so much opposition but I left the conference with the same sort of feeling as I had had when the Olympics finished in 2012 - wondering how I could manage without it!