by Sean Powell
I put myself forward to be voted for delegation at conference with one main aim – to learn. And I think that’s what I did tenfold.
Picture: From left to right, Hal, Chris, Billiy and Sean, our CLP delegates at Labour 2018 with their backs to the Mersey.
There were three things that stood out for me from conference.
The first thing was the variety. In the physical sense I can honestly say, based on all the places I’ve lived, including some fairly large cosmopolitan cities, that this was by far the most diverse space I’ve ever walked into, and probably ever will. Every creed, religion, ethnic group, age, region, gender, sexual persuasion, ability and acute political experience and belief seemed to be represented entirely equally. Walking through the corridors was like wandering through a tableau of modern British life. Nothing staged, nothing forced or given more merit than others. People were there to represent, and that representation was the only thing that mattered in that space. You also saw it on the podium in the revolving selection of chairs and panels who conduct the debates in the main chamber. One minute a gruff, middle aged trade union veteran would be holding court before being replaced by a twenty something Indian woman, interchangeable in her responsibilities. These moments never lost their power as each spokesperson directed, in their own way, the annual direction of an entire mass movement. The difference between this and the controlled, overtly Caucasian country club retiree get-together which the Tory conference still seems to put on is very hard to ignore. It’s not a case of having more of this and that person. I got an overwhelming sense that people come to our party to be themselves and express whoever they are and those they represent with total freedom.
The variety of politics on show was nothing less than mind-boggling. I said I would try and see as much as I could, and even though I tried I can think of over a dozen talks by both mainstream and fringe groups I promised myself I would see and simply couldn’t get to. At the same time, there were things I accidentally saw after failing to get to nearby events. I attended a fascinating and disquieting discussion on the plight of the disabled in modern Tory Britain at The World Transformed alternative gathering, an event including our Shadow Disabilities Minister, Marsha de Cordova, which took on a tangent of its own in which the room discussed what aid could be given to disabled refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. As luck would have it, an aid worker was present who had just returned from Syria, who gave us an illuminating picture on this subject. I wouldn’t have heard these things if I’d stayed in and watched the news, but I also wouldn’t if I hadn’t stopped for a coffee on the way. The amount and variety of experience in Liverpool that weekend up for sharing was astounding. I felt it transcended politics, and was more of a snapshot of a vast nationwide community that has come together to help one another. And nowadays that help is needed more than ever.
The second thing that struck me was the unity. I think I was expecting discord because of the nature of the various splits over the past few years and media-amplified fallouts between parliamentary personalities. Here MPs are but froth on a seething cauldron of members. I was at many passionate debates that held a few silent MPs at the back that appeared to be looking to see which way the argument would go, presumably to help form their own opinions. One of these debates that illustrated the staggering amount of unity for such a huge party was the one held by the Labour Representation Committee. Here the fallout of the absence of mandatory reselection on the list of motions, heavily pushed by this left-wing lobby group, was discussed by people who seemed to have devoted their entire lives to bringing more democracy to the Party. The angriest people I saw were members of Unite, angry with Len McCluskey, who they regarded as having betrayed them by kicking the legs out from beneath mandatory reselection. It was the old members of the LRC who calmed them down and reminded them some battles are long, and some never finish, and that keeping faith with the wider movement was of utmost importance. The small amount of anger vented on the floor at the unions aside, I was surprised how this issue didn’t blow up as I thought it might. I think it was the effect of feeling yourself, no matter how loud your voice or large your personality, to be a part of something far larger and more collaborative, that stopped any major bust-ups. Even on Europe I detected little in the way of open acrimony. Though the constantly annoying EU flag beret wearing brigade who seem to have made it their mission to disrupt every speech going did raise a few hackles over the weekend, they were still welcome.
The third thing was present in the main chamber itself, where thousands of delegates gather to debate issues and motions and finally come to a vote. Each of these could take hours, and I tried to be in the chamber for as much of it as I could, and was always present for the most important votes, which tended to come at the same time each day. It could be said this was the ‘driest’ part of the conference. The official conference. The only thing the media really has time for, where officials and shadow cabinet members can make their speeches, but also where anybody can go up to the podium and address this gigantic national family on the issues are facing their own communities. Each is heard out, and every single one who revealed that this was their first podium speech and, even better, first conference, was given a round of applause. The thing I noticed most of all at these debates was the value of discussion. I say this because I think there should be a place, not only at conference, but also in our own CLP meetings, and I’ve seen it in Town Hall meetings, where discussion is simply allowed to happen. At conference, as mentioned, it goes on for hours, but I liked and needed it. You have to sit and listen and think, and most of the time your pre-conceived notions are left at the door. I wonder what it must be like for the mandated union members who vote in blocks on issues. For the rest of us I could see and feel people around me slowly making their minds up on issues based on the stories of comrades from around the country who had been sent by their local parties and in many cases electorates to tell us how our decisions, bound together, could alter lives.
It seemed to be pure and necessary, and I assure everyone here that I voted based on a number of things, a heavy bearing being how I thought our CLP would vote, along with what I felt was the right choice, and I could hear constant mini-debates around me in the chairs as the finer points were fleshed out. It’s hard not to have your mind changed on at least a few things at conference, as the process itself is so persuasive.
I want to end on a positive note but before I do I really must draw attention to one negative aspect of the conference which will stay with me. We the delegates followed, tiredly, what the news media were saying about proceedings when we got back to the flat over a glass of wine. Although I was pleasantly surprised by how certain news magazine and newspapers received motions passed and speeches given, I think the conduct of the BBC over those few days has pretty much made my mind up for me on that organisation, and I don’t think it’ll be changed back. To actually sit and watch something happen with your own eyes and then go home and immediately watch the same event be not just misconstrued, but openly and flagrantly lied about by journalists and their editorial directors makes me wonder how many others have been in the same situation, though with much more at stake. This happened with two items of note, the nature and indeed very wording of the motion on Europe, and the presence of a few angry voices directed at unions’ voting intentions being represented as some kind of intra-party civil war involving hundreds of delegates. I have to say I have watched less and less of the BBC’s increasingly quality–free output the last few years, though I can now safely say the only reason I still pay the license fee is because if I don’t I’ll be prosecuted. I assure you, I have lived in other western democratic countries where this medieval state of affairs is laughed at. After that conference I can see why. I don’t ask for much, just that impartiality be matched with honesty. I saw little of either, and we told the BBC staff as much – along with many others – politely but forcefully, and I hope they took it on board, after all they rely our money to make their programmes. There should at least be a semblance of balance in their news output.
Anyway, overall I found the weekend an incredible experience. I learned so much my head hurt. Highlights that spring to mind include the small but powerful panel on striking fast food workers, in which three brave low paid employees explained how they are directing the next generation of union activism in this country fighting the gig economy and corporate giants like McDonalds, heavily representative of young people and migrant workers. The head of the Bakers Union and the Shadow Chancellor just let them speak. It’s their time now.
Other fringe events I saw included one with an impressive panel of Paul Mason, Lisa Nandy, the Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, and Shadow Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Andrew Gwynne, hosted by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies talking about reinvesting in public services and restoring public values in them. I asked a few questions relating to Frome and what I see of it, and got good responses from Lisa Nandy and John McDonnell, who had popped up again. One day I saw him at four completely different events, and he was only booked for one of them. He didn’t seem to sleep. I saw many fantastic speeches, and heard some speakers I suspect will be key players in Labour. One, the young Chair of the Rochester and Strood CLP, gave several loud, impassioned and credible screeds on the links between a healthily democratic party and a vibrant democracy nationally. I will look out for him in the future.
My personal favourite speech of the weekend was John McDonnell’s conference hall delivery, which I can safely describe as the finale, explaining the many ways in which our society will be noticeably transformed for the better by a Labour victory under Jeremy Corbyn. It had the whole crowd on its feet cheering for several minutes, more than for any other speaker I saw. Emily Thornberry gave a thunderously rousing speech which made me even prouder that she is in our party, and I make no bones about the fact I would gladly see her as a future Prime Minister. Her passion and commitment whenever I saw her speak was magnetic, and her willingness to brutally condemn those powerful who do wrong, regardless of what our current government thinks we can gain by staying quiet, shows what a real Foreign Secretary should be doing.
It was a unique experience for which I must thank everyone who voted for me to go. For as enjoyable and interesting as it was, I always felt proud I was representing Somerton and Frome amongst thousands of equals from across the land, all of us telling our stories and those we’ve picked up in our communities, and taking part together in multiple acts of democracy that will hopefully lead to good outcomes for wider society. I would love to go back, and if anybody is interested in going, I can safely say it will be more of everything than you imagine.