Labour Party Conference September 2017
This year I was lucky enough to go to Conference as a delegate.
Arriving at lunch time I was able to pick up my delegate information and vote in the priorities ballot. This is a really important part of being a delegate as we vote for those themes picked up in motions put forward by CLPs, and by Unions and associate bodies (known as Affiliates), that we wish to debate on the floor of conference. The top 4 chosen by CLP delegates and the top 4 selected by Affiliates go forward. There were 13 subject groupings (themes) to select from.
Taking into account what was already on the agenda for conference, NEC and manifesto statements I voted for Housing; Rail; NHS and Social Care. Because there are a number of motions within each subject area, the CAC (Conference Arrangements Committee) has the task of boiling them all down to one. This is known as ‘compositing’ and the motions then become a composite motion. The result is a single motion text that takes in all the key points for the numerous individual motions.
The Affiliates (including the Unions) selected Grenfell Tower, Public Sector pay; Workers’ Rights and Growth and Investment.
On Monday CAC scheduled Growth and Investment; Public sector pay and Public sector pay (disabled workers); workers’ rights for debate.
The day began with the International Policy Commission report given by Glenis Willmott Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (now standing down). Delegates are allowed to speak (if chosen from the dozens waving flags and jumping up and down) on any matter relevant to the debate topic and can, where a policy report is being debated ask for a reference back. This means that a paragraph or section in the National Policy Forum report has to be re-visited and come back to the following year’s conference for adoption or rejection. It gets very lively when this happens and there has to be a vote at the end of the debate on the reference back. Delegates ranged from nervous first-time speakers to accomplished orators and no conference is complete with at least one Monty Python reference. Monday was an opportunity for delegates to note that Brexit had not made it through the ballot system for discussion. However, it did get plenty of floor time in many of the debates as it has such a wide impact on all areas of policy. One delegate summed it up nicely when he reminded Conference that much like the parrot, the referendum on Brexit was over, it was no more and it had ceased to be.
Fraser Amos the Taunton Deane delegate moved a reference back to ensure that all welfare cuts (both implemented and planned by the Tories) are reversed under a Labour government. The reference back was overwhelmingly carried.
Emily Thornberry gave a rousing speech that balanced hard-hitting accusations for the inept Tory government with humour and a commitment to entrench our values in our foreign policy when we take power. Her now famous “there is no set we can’t win and no Tory we can’t bin” earned her a rapturous round of applause.
Keir Starmer gave a very effective speech, measured as always, on Brexit. The clock is ticking for Teresa May and her government and Labour stands ready to take control – Mrs May has only to ask!
The inimitable Dennis Skinner was called to the stage (as the delegate for Bolsover had been unavailable to second a motion earlier). He gave a really impassioned speech, one that left few dry eyes in the room, urging a Labour government to press ahead with its radical agenda and that once in government to take a leaf out of the book of the private sector and if necessary borrow funds to meet the costs of the programme. This speech can be found on You-Tube.
Len McCluskey spoke on public sector pay and workers’ rights. Rightly proclaiming that when, under Jeremy’s leadership we came so close to winning the general election, he believed we, as a party, had won – we won back our pride and our dignity as a socialist labour party.
John McDonnell spoke about Economy and business. He promised to “electrify railway lines from Cornwall right through to London”. He also picked up on the Tory ploy of normalising poverty and struggle for large sections of the population. Labour offered hope and a new way to achieve a better world and a fairer society. “The performance of our Government,” he said “will be measured by the care we show to all our people and the richness of their lives”. It was that message, backed by proper economic policy that will deliver us the next general election. Labour are ready for action. I was ready for lunch!
The great thing about Conference is not just being able to get copies of the key speeches so you can revel in the messages, but that you sit surrounded by broadly like-minded comrades. You feel able to laugh, cry, stand, applaud or even hiss at Tory malice knowing you neighbour is joining in too or at least won’t criticise you for it. This year, compared to last year in Liverpool, the atmosphere was tangibly positive. Hope could be felt everywhere. Hope and Unity, it was really uplifting.
We returned for the afternoon session and votes were held on the motions we had debated. All of the motions passed by huge majorities.
Motion 1 Growth and Investment – this commits Labour to policies of public ownership and public investment; it re-affirms the manifesto commitments and commits Labour to the return of collective bargaining, protection of a public mail service, renationalisation of ports and the delivery of superfast broadband by 2022.
Motion 2 Public Sector Pay – this re-affirms the manifesto commitment to abandon the pay cap, with a return to pre austerity levels of pay across all public services. This means above inflation pay rises for all public sector workers during the course of the parliament thus restoring and recovering from the impact of punitive Tory austerity measures
Motion 3 public sector pay – this commits Labour to supporting the continuation of supported workplaces where disabled workers can find employment within a single company across all fields of work. It also called upon a Labour government to ensure that procurement positively discriminated in favour of contracts with supported workplaces.
Motion 4 workers’ rights – this endorsed the manifesto position on zero hours contracts and workers rights to unionise. In particular it referenced a £10ph minimum wage; the repeal of the Trade Unions Act; collective bargaining rights and the use of Local authority and devolved institutions in leading the way on fair employment practices.
Tuesday was an equally busy day. The timetable was thrown off course by a rejection of the CAC report for the day (ie the agenda they set) because certain emergency motions has been ruled out despite meeting the criteria. Any rejection of CAC report has to go to a card ballot (not a show of hands) because the Trades Unions have a 2:1 weighted vote to delegates. So everyone leafed through the ballot booklet to find the correct numbered vote and tear out a for or against slip (all bar-coded so they know who votes and how many votes they are casting). Passing the ballot boxes takes time, and so we were running late from minute 1!
Whilst we awaited the outcome of the ballot, we heard about the strong party finances and the iron rules now in place to control spending. The party has a positive income and expenditure report, but there is not much free cash. However, the multitudes of small donations added up and allowed us to swing into action in the General election with a fully costed and funded strategy (a bit like our manifesto!)
There were several delegates who wanted to ask questions about the finances and clear responses and assurances were provided. Then it came to the constitutional amendments.
This, along with the appointment of NEC members and more particularly CAC members, is the meat of the Conference.
Constitutional changes are ALL CARD ballots.
The NEC proposed 3 rule changes: 1. Adding more elected members to the NEC; 2. Reducing the % of PLP needed to nominate a leader; 3. Expanding the meaning of conduct prejudicial to the party to make it absolutely clear that no form of discrimination, islamophobia, anti-Semitism etc would be tolerated.
The 3rd rule change sparked a lot of support (and not the splits reported in the press), with it being made clear that simply supporting Palestine was not an act of anti Semitism. All 3 rule changes were passed (89% – 96%).
The CLPs had proposed 10 rule changes. The NEC opposed all of them. As they were put forward they could be debated unless the proposers remitted them back to the NEC for consideration. This year Jeremy Corbyn has instigated a democratic review of the whole rule book. The NEC wanted the CLPS to remit all of their changes to this review. Some, very tearful, proposers took to the podium to say that they felt so pressurised by NEC to remit that they had no choice. Several of the potentially popular changes received support from the floor and calls not to remit. However, there was nothing to be done. Only one CLP stood firm and we voted on an amendment to remove the word “contemporary” from motions so that any matter could be put to the conference by a CLP provided it was not substantially covered by a National Policy Forum paper/decision. This would make it easier for CLPS to put forward motions. Several of the CLPS only remitted on extracting a promise from the platform that their concerns would definitely be addressed.
The single CLP change was voted on, but lost. CLPs voted 64.23% in favour, 35.77% against. Affiliates voted 2.97% in favour and 97.03% against. So it was lost 66.4% to 33.6%.
The card vote on the CAC report was carried 63% (but CLPs voted 62% against).
The left of party CAC candidates were elected with over 70% of the vote between them.
Angela Rayner, always a popular speaker, set out our education policy. The creation of a National education service “a cradle-to-grave system”. She promised funding for Sure start centres, so crucial in area such as ours, coupled with free early learning provision for 2 – 4 year olds and affordable childcare arrangements. Along with the headline grabbing funding promises was an overlooked but vitally important promise – a promise to end period poverty in our schools.
That was just the morning (although the votes were taken at the end of the day due to the delayed timetable). The afternoon session started with an excellent speech by Naomi Klein our International guest speaker. Her speech is on You-Tube. It was a clarion call for the activation of socialist policies in order to address neo-liberalisms’ evils and climate change impacts. Ms Klein was followed by Jonathan Ashworth who spoke with his usual passion about mental health and addiction. Labour will revolutionise and mainstream treatment for both.
The motions on Grenfell Tower (better housing regulations, accountability, tackling housing crisis across UK including rural areas), Housing (creating a housing department, homes fit for human habitation building council homes) and rail (halt ticket office closures, no Driver Only Trains) were debated and supported by speakers from the floor.
Tuesday evening I went to see the film of Dennis Skinners life. It as a funny and emotional journey as we watched a very young miner form Bolsover become the fire-brand Parliament knows so well. His humour and decency shone out, along with his singing and love for nature. A Q&A session with the great man followed. Just terrific.
Wednesday is closing day of Conference. This year the morning was set aside for policy debates. This gives an opportunity for those not called to speak to get their views across and CLPS that have not yet fed into the fora the chance to put forward suggestions. The highlight of the day was the leaders’ speech. I am told it was one of the longest ever given. I thought it flew by. I could have stayed for longer!
Hearing a Labour leader commit to greater state intervention, public ownership, disgust with poverty and proposing ways to solve it, dedicating the party to investing in education throughout life, to renationalising the NHS; to ensuring secure affordable housing is every citizens right, who has plans for Brexit and securing jobs and trade, re-ignited my passion for social justice. My socialist batteries are re-charged.
Quotes you may not have heard on TV or radio – “The Tory approach to the economy isn’t entrepreneurial its extractive. They are not focussed on long-term investments and wealth creation…look at what they do rather than what they say – its all about driving down wages, services and standards to make as much money as quickly as possible.”
“end the violence now against the Rohingya in Myanmar and allow UN and international aid agencies into Rakhine State.”
“let’s give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people…and move to a genuine two-state solution”
“If the special relationship means anything it must mean that we can say to Washington: that way is the wrong way”
“we offered an antidote to apathy and despair. Let everyone understand – we will not let you down. Because we listen to you, because we be live in you. Labour can and will deliver a Britain for the many not just the few.”
Conference ended with the traditional Jerusalem and a proud and loud rendition of the Red Flag.
I recommend attending conference if you can as either a delegate or a visitor.
Alongside conference, a parallel political philosophy and economics festival operates, known as the World Transformed. These events bring together MPs, international speakers, academics and campaigners to discuss policy and ideas usually followed by Q&A sessions. I saw Paul Mason, Ann Pettifor, John McDonnell, Len McCluskey, international speakers and others.