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Labour Party Conference 2012

Julian Bryant reports:

This year’s national conference, from 30th Sep – 4th Oct, may prove to be highly significant, as Labour continues to rebuild after losing power at the general election, and changing leader. There is a debate within the party as to how best to represent the interests of working people, and how to resist the Tory-lead coalition’s reverse Robin Hood, taking resources away from the poor and giving to the rich.

Dartford Labour has given me the privilege of representing them as delegate. This is my first time at Conference, so I thought it might be helpful to those interested in the Labour Party to read my impressions of the event, which I will post below. Looking through the programme, I won’t be able to get to half of it, but I’m looking forward to meeting up with some old friends, and hearing new ideas which may be useful to Dartford people in the future.


Arrived in Manchester, tram to hotel. Overheard reception saying to phone enquiry “It’s Labour Party Conference, there’s not a room to be had in Manchester!”

Evening briefing for delegates – the Women’s conference has been in full swing already today.  The conference centre is huge, and made even bigger by the addition of marquees and pop-up stalls.  The event is sponsored by Tesco, who are one of the best employers in retail: full union recognition and participation, and the highest wages in the sector. Conversations with other delegates – I’m far from being the only first-timer.

A welcome from Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman.  Ed started with a critique of the Tories: “Next year, David Cameron will be writing a cheque for £40,000 for every millionaire in the country.  That’s their values.”.  He gave a preview of the themes he expects to emerge: the evils of youth unemployment; changing banking culture; and recapturing the spirit of the Olympics, a country that works together.  “You can’t do that without Government”.  His sign-off was upbeat: “At the next General Election we can deliver a radical government that can really change things.”

The consensus among the delegates I spoke to, is that we were impressed.  While Ed often comes across on TV as awkward and a bit geeky, he spoke with an easy passion and obvious intelligence that was attractive.  While media commentators and pollsters have been discussing whether he could be seen as a PM, on this evidence I was convinced that he makes Cameron look like the vacuous spin merchant he is.


Michael Cashman opening conference

After a briefing from Region where we were issued with voting cards and order papers, delegates were invited to vote for contemporary motions, from a list of issues. I supported the debates on the Thames Airport, on housing, health service reform and schools (the vote later was announced that the last three, with some others, would be going on for compositing) Then went on to conference proper. My seat is close to the front, right behind a row of guest seats. I realised quite soon I was in the camera shots of audience responses, so I need to behave myself.
Michael Sandel of Harvard gave a fascinating lecture on the corrosive effect of market forces on society, arguing for an increased moral awareness in public discourse. “If we shrink from moral debate, the market decides for us”. And the effect, as we can sometimes see in Dartford, that people of affluence and those of limited means lead increasingly separated lives, unaware of each others’ problems.

The theme for the day was Refounding Labour, Refounding Britain. It was a mix of debate (more presentation really, as is the way with modern conferences) on Labour’s development of policy for 2015 and on; and issues around winning back the trust of the electorate. A personal highlight was seeing former Dartford councillor Andy Sawford speak as parliamentary candidate for the Corby by-election.

In the evening went to the Southeast region reception, meeting Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at closer range. Then on to the Fabian Debate in the grand surroundings of Manchester Town Hall, hearing Chuka Umunna, Andy Burnham, Polly Toynbee, and the excellent Owen Jones (The Independent) discussing future policy. It is evident that firm conclusions have not yet been reached on Labour’s programme, but that the leadership is intending the next manifesto to be really radical and transformative.

From its start at 9.30 this was a busy conference day. In the conference hall it was more a case of mood music, with Ed Balls’ keynote speech as the highlight. He’s a skilled orator, making the case for progressive economics forcibly and with humour, and pithy sound-bites. Government policy, far from paying off the Debt, actually increased the debt by 22% last year through lower tax receipts and higher benefit payments, as unemployment soars. Far from boosting industry jobs, we have lost 33,000 small businesses since the general election, while in Germany private investment has increased 7% and US and China are investing in education.
He made a couple of announcements, commitments to fiscal competence, but also a baseline spending review to evaluate the effectiveness of all government expenditure. Just as in 1945, the Labour government rejected the failed economics of the 30′s and embarked on a radical programme of reform, the next government will need to do the same.
TV image
As delegate experience, I’m starting to get used to having the camera in my face half the day – having to make sure I behave. Receiving messages from friends saying “You’ve been on the telly!” It is possible to make a more useful contributions in the policy seminars, away from the glare of the camera. I think that main conference is properly a way for Parliamentary candidates to show their potential.

The fringe events proved to be very interesting. I heard Jon Cruddas speaking at an IPPR event about the thinking that was underpinning our ongoing policy review “Refounding Britain”. Some of this was about reflecting on the Blair legacy, what went right and why it faded towards the end. He talked about the richer traditions of Socialist, that were about Britain as community. He combines an East End persona with an erudite learning, quoting sources from Raymond Williams (To be radical it is important to make hope possible rather than despair convincing) to GW Bush’s speech on compassionate conservatism. He made the point that, following their reforming energy on coming to office, the Tories have stalled very quickly, and reverted to type.

The IPPR forum on the Living Wage presented research on low wages from the Resolution Foundation, with contributions from Andy Burnham, and Frances O’Grady from the TUC. There are 5,000,000 people on low wages in the UK, while corporations are sitting on £750billion of cash assets, waiting to invest when the economy picks up. We are the 7th wealthiest economy in the world! Meanwhile there is a drive to lower wages and reduce protection from both Tories and LibDem. Theer was some discussion of Richard Wilkinson’s book The Spirit Level – Why equal societies do better which is now on my Christmas list. I didn’t know that the Olympics Park was a Living Wage employer.

The last event was a Govnet reception about the US presidential election, with an excellent presentation from the revered Bob Worcester of Ipsos Mori. Apart from the details, his explanation of the psephology process was the clearest I’d heard. By the way, he has Obama at 52% with an 80% certainty – in the old phrase, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. At least there’s a strong change of a President committed to growth.


Refounding Britain

Conference platform during the build-up

Conference platform during the build-up[/caption]Today was all about the Leader’s speech; it seems now other events were merely a precursor to the big one, though I’m sure it didn’t seem so to colleagues making their speeches on low pay, and on Scotland. Tessa Jowell received a standing ovation for her work on London 2012, as an hour of the morning was spent looking back on the extraordinary summer. There is a clear connection between the conference logo and branding, with Stella McCartney’s deconstructed Union Jack design for the athlete’s kit, made even more evident when people like boxer Nicola Adams and cycling guru Dave Brailsford are on stage. This was, however, a (mostly) non-partisan part of conference, with former Tory minister Seb Coe also being greeted warmly.

The reason becomes evident when Ed starts to speak. After endless queuing, and a build-up of film clips and montage of comments from former Harvard students, our leader enters through the crowd. In an echo of Cameron, he speaks without notes, on the theme of One Nation, connecting it to his family’s experience as refugees, and to his own education. The Harvard connection becomes evident. This is a man who is on top of his brief through research and study, not through briefing notes. No longer a leadership of smooth presentation in the Blair and Cameron way, though it’s impressive enough, this is someone who has studied the condition of Britain both personally and academically. He spoke with passion, and relaxed in a way we haven’t seen before from him

I’m not going to talk about policy initiatives of which there were many – read the full text for that. This is about mood, and impact, and a vision of one-nation socialism. Ed Miliband has answered the question of what Labour stands for now, in contrast to the incompetence and shallowness of the Tory position. His attack on Cameron’s shambolic leadership got a standing ovation.

Fellow delegates were fired up by the speech – here is a future Prime Minister, who can offer quiet leadership, and has a clear vision for Britain. And the changes he is bringing to party are just as important. Not just empty flag waving, the “One Nation” theme is being carried though, informing the thinking and campaigning of a Party that is as much for the rural areas as for industrial, and every bit in between. That means Longfield as well as Temple Hill; there’s a compelling message for post-industrial areas like Swanscombe and Greenhithe too.


A busy morning in the hall, with debates on Crime and Justice, and on Health. A reminder that on November 15th there will be elections for Police Commissioners. I learned that 70% of prisoners have psychiatric issues, and it was said that we had closed the Victorian asylums, but not the Victorian prisons. Budget cuts to the police, and places like the Serious Fraud office, meant that there only 20 prosecutions for Fraud following the 2008 crash, which in the USA there were over 800. Party policy is strong on crime prevention, and on restorative justice which produces over 50% success in reducing recidivism, the best results so far.

In Health, Pop Idol presenter Carrie Grantspoke movingly about her own experience of the NHS, while Regional Public health director Dr Paul Scally said “This Government is the greatest threat to public health in the UK today”. Andy Burnham reminded us of the broken pledges Cameron made to get elected – not to cut, not to impose top-down reorganisation. Instead we have been subjected to the abolition of NHS Direct; and secret privatisation, not doctor-lead reform, supported all the way by the LibDems. Labour councillors are now the last line of defence for the NHS.

Hilary Benn

The afternoon saw Ed Miliband talking openly with party members in a Q&A session. He said repeatedly that he wouldn’t promise what he couldn’t deliver – “Underpromising and over-delivering” because he didn’t want to get caught like Clegg. There were further chances to buttonhole shadow ministers during policy forums and in corridors – I spoke briefly to Tom Watson to thank him for his work exposing Murdoch, and to Stephen Twigg about special needs education. At greater length, Hilary Benn answered my questions on community building in the Thames Gateway with a command of detail worthy of his father.

The last day starts with greetings from the Co-op Party, a sister organisation with parallel programme, and the fourth largest Party in Parliament. The banking crisis showed up the importance of mutual organisations, and the Co-op is leading the way of making sure working poeple have access to sound finance, getting bank branches and credit unions into areas where loansharks and pawnbrokers are rife. Meanwhile mis-selling of energy is encouraging the development of energy co-ops. 42 million people in the US buy their electricity this way.

Hilary Benn lead the debate on communities. Planning approval has been granted for 400,000 new houses, but funding, private and public, has been frozen. The problem is the Government, wit their dogmatic belief in the Market, and cutting the affordable housing budget by 60%. Labour is campaigning for the proceeds of the 4G frequency auction to fund new social housing.

As an educationalist I found the education debate profoundly moving, with contributions from head teachers and students showing what can be done through good leadership and innovation, not by a retreat to 50′s values when only 5% of young people went on to university. Despite preparing a speech on vocational learning, I wasn’t called to speak – but it was better to hear the moving stories of young people – the young single mum who was supported through GCSE, A-levels and university who would have been demonised and marginalised by the Tories; the former asylumseeker, now an A-grade student with ambitions to be a barrister. Stephen Twigg announced that Labour policy would be research-lead under a policy commission under Prof. Chris Husbands from the Institute of Education, not prejudice-lead and half baked under Michael Gove (the only name that always drew boos from the floor). Twigg promised “I will never allow profit-making schools.”

Conference concluded with a bit of knockabout [silly voice] “Hello, I’m Hattie from Camberwell, and here is the news” Harriet Harman summed up conference, with Ed’s audacious grab for being the One Nation Party. One nation Tories have been marginalised, and LibDEms have demonstrated their ignorance of the state of working people. Labour is the only party with a presence everywhere – she name-checked Dartford on her list of towns, which was clearly a list of target seats. As even right-wing commentators have said, it’s now game on.




Final reflections
What have I learned? So much – with Labour, access to the highest in the land is expected as a right, not a privilege. A star-spotter’s paradise, but where the bonds of comradeship bind leaders and cleaners, delegates and staff. In the hall, as well as the bars, Labour is united as never before, determined to make positive changes for those we seek to represent, and that is too important in time of crisis to indulge in the luxury of ideological dispute.  Even more so when faced with a government led by a right wing neo-conservative agenda the equal of anything that the tea-party crazies can come up with.

I learned how conference operates: we are a modern party, and I accept that debate now happens away from the cameras; but that policy formation is still a democratic process, involving input from both ordinary members, elected representatives, and subject experts. I made many friends, many in the southeast, but also across the country, and heard their stories of where they live.

I learned that Labour doesn’t have to be in power to be effective, and there is much to be done. I return with pages of ideas for campaigning in Dartford, and a renewed passion for political action which had become dimmed after electoral defeat. That Dartford is a winnable seat, and we can reclaim the trust of those who felt we had betrayed them.  The real betrayal  comes from the Tories, who have lied over the NHS, are in the process of stealing from the poor while awarding themselves pay rises.

Most of all that across the UK, from the wealthy areas of Surrey to poor estates in Sunderland and everywhere in betweenthere are women and men from all walks of life, all ages, and from all cultural backgrounds who dedicate themselves to making lives better in the UK and abroad. I’m proud to be part of that movement, never more so than today.