I take the long drive across to Brighton on a Saturday afternoon and head to Hove and a place to lay my head for the night. I drop off bags, park the car on a slow meter and head off along the promenade in bright sunshine to find what’s happening out there. Brighton, Labour Party Conference, The World Transformed, Momentum – I’m on a mission. Let’s go…
From the relative calm of Hove to the buzz of Brighton in full-on Labour party conference mode is a twenty minute walk beside the sea. I’ve got my ticket to The World Transformed and some vague notions of where some of the nine Momentum venues are scattered across town. I have also downloaded the Momentum app, which keeps sending me encouraging messages about what’s on when and what’s filling up fast. Here I am, winging it. No official invite, but a notion to find out what’s happening at the grass roots.
The Lanes are full of people talking politics. The whole town is talking. It’s one big conversation. And I want to be part of it. There are people selling magazines – The Clarion, Labour Briefing, Socialist Labour Bulletin. There are leaflets being handed out hand over fist – a Unite #JC4PM rally, a Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Stop the Labour Purge, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Jewish Voice for Labour launching, there are leaflets on the McStrike and campaigners for Justice for Grenfell. People are out on the streets, talking, getting involved, engaging. And it feels brilliant. Change is happening. You can feel it.
I keep walking, bag full of leaflets, to find the Conference Headquarters, in case I’ve missed anything – but the foyer of the Hilton feels a little sterile compared to the streets and venues of the Lanes – so I ask for directions from a friendly face and head back to where the action is.
And that’s when I spot the queue, snaking out the Friend’s Meeting House. I join, not sure entirely what it is I’m signing up for – but keen to get started. I get chatting in the queue to a group of women representing their CLP in the North East. They’re here to make a difference. And this is how. This meeting is the CLPD – the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – and it turns out to be at the epicentre of change in the party. We file into the hall, a beautiful old chapel and take a pew at the back. There’s a panel of speakers infront of us and a massive air of anticipation. The venue is packed to capacity. There are people shaking their heads and saying they’ve never seen anything like this – in forty years of Labour activism.
Gavin Strang is the first speaker. He gets straight to the point – Jeremy Corbyn was the most effective party leader at the last election. ‘We are living in exciting times,’ he tells the audience, ‘but we’ve got work to do. Two years of hard work. We can’t make the case for public ownership unless we’re disciplined and organised, from the CLP’s up.’ The room is full of CLP representatives from all over the country – many newly elected, Corybn supporting representatives, looking to shape a new kind of politics.
Amina Ibrahim, recently elected to the NCC, National Constitutional Committee, represents five thousand members in Haringay. She tells us that one of the key targets is to increase the number of Labour councillors around the country. To contest every seat. And contest it to win. Also on the panel are Seema from Tottenham CLP and her colleague, Billy. Both have recently been voted onto the Conference Arrangement Committee by Labour Party members – I recognize their faces from Momentum emails asking us to vote for Corbyn supporters. We did this. We are making a difference. Right here. Seema’s great – ‘I’m just a Tottenham girl,’ she says, with a massive grin – but here I am – representing you on the CAC. I didn’t even know what that was twelve months ago. I do now. We need to understand what power it has. Motions should be heard, should be debated, should be voted on. It’s going to be a tough two years – but we’re getting there.’
News comes from outside the hall that there’s a huge crowd outside who couldn’t get in. Speakers are doubling up by heading out to speak to them. The atmosphere is charged. Katy Clark, Jeremy Corbyn’s Political Secretary, arrives straight from addressing the Women’s Conference. She sounds a note of cautious optimisim, ‘if we are to be in government we have to show that we have the ability to govern ourselves properly,’ she says. To that end she’s chairing an enquiry into Labour Party democracy. It seems that the Blair years were very much ‘top down’ and that there are some in the party who are reluctant to make changes to reverse this and listen to the five hundred thousand members that make up the Labour Party membership now. The biggest party for social democracy in Europe, as it turns out.
Billy fires up the audience with details of the ‘big issues’ for conference. His seat on the CAC has given Momentum a say in the way power is deployed to push Corbyn’s agenda. There will be eight ‘contemporary motions’ discussed at conference. Unions have already raised four: Growth and investment –anti austerity/re-nationalisation; Public sector pay – removing the pay cap; Workers rights – wages, the right to strike, zero hours contracts; Grenfell – empowering tenants, widening the scope of the public inquiry. This leaves four main areas for the Corbyn-supporting CLP delegates to choose. Momentum is suggesting Housing, NHS, Social Care and Re-nationalisation of rail and utilities. Every day the CLPD will publish ‘Yellow Pages’ to help CLP delegates to negotiate conference in the most effective way to support the Corbyn agenda. They will have eighty one of their members outside conference every day handing these ‘Yellow pages’ out. He ends by paying tribute to the vision and organising skills of Jon Lansman, who founded Momentum.
Claudia Webbe takes the floor. She talks about rule changes at NEC level. The balance of power is now shifting to CLP’s. The rules are changing to allow more say for Labour Party members. Constituencies, unions and MP’s will have an equal say when it come to electing members to the NEC and future leaders of the party. At constituency level members fees are to be increased to support grass roots campaigning, from £1.50 per member to £2.50 – a small but significant concession. The figure is also to be index linked to off set inflation.
There’s another flurry at the back of the hall and two more speakers arrive. Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union and Billy Ward of the Communications Union take the stand. They are powerful, charismatic speakers, ‘We’ve got 570,000 ordinary members. They’re coming home to Labour under Jeremy and John,’ says Matt. ‘This is a new beginning,’ says Billy, ‘we need to listen to the wisdom of crowds. Being decent has for too long been seen as being weak. This is a terrible notion. To disagree is not to denigrate. We, as a party can have differences of opinion. We can all work together to win the next election.’ The room erupts into cheers. Older CLP members are shaking their heads in disbelief, ‘never seen anything like this’ they seem to say. It’s emotional. And focussed.
Almost unnoticed in the melee two Labour MP’s have snuck onto the platform at the front of the chapel. Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South and Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Shadow Lord Chancellor. It’s hard to imagine a more extraordinary turn of events. Clive Lewis gives a passionate speech. ‘There is hope,’ he tells us, ‘hope for the future – Jeremy means this – there is work to be done, on climate change, on inequality, on Palestine. This is socialism for the twenty-first century. There is no future, there are no jobs on a dead planet.’
Richard Burgon is relaxed and open. He begins by reflecting on how far the Labour Party have come in just two years. ‘Only two years ago we were abstaining on welfare cuts – now we are within reach of a truly transformative socialist government. Our manifesto saved social democracy as a force in politics.’ The audience barely draw breath, ‘and now,’ he continues, ‘we’re four points ahead in the polls, we’re a mass membership party with four extra members on the NEC and Trade Unions support across the board. The CLPs are our eyes and ears. With the best will in the world, it’s easy to get out of touch at Westminster – our members can keep us in the real world. This is about transforming society. The free market isn’t working. Privatisation isn’t working. And the European Union debate is a distraction that pits the 48% against the 52%. Make no mistake, this is about the 99% versus the 1%. In the words of Tony Benn, a great political hero of mine, “we are not just here to manage capitalism – we are here to change society.”’
The feeling of optimism and anticipation in the room is overwhelming. We spill out into the warm evening air high on the promise of a better future within touching distance.
I’m at a sea front café on the promenade the next day as a huge anti-Brexit protest makes its way along the main drag, past conference. Caroline Lucas speaks, Alistair Campbell gets up and ends with a quick burst of ‘Ode to Joy’ on his bagpipes, a Spanish nurse demolishes the myth of the immigrant who steals jobs and keeps down wages. ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ say stickers on the marchers draped in the blue flag with its circle of stars held tight around them, as if they’re holding onto their identity. I drink my mug of tea and watch as they come, and keep on coming towards a temporary stage at the far end of the Promenade, dwarfed by the Regency grandeur of ‘Brunswick Terrace’.
The people are stirring. It feels good. It feels as if you licked your finger and held it up in the sea breeze it would taste like HOPE.