Conference Diary – Day 3

The Conference plenaries were on Environment, Transport, Housing and other practical things which make a real difference to people’s lives. I think our best hope for a Labour Government may lie in these practical issues – no amount of Tory lies, no amount of hostile spin from the billionaire-owned press, no amount of ridicule or snobbery from the chattering classes, can make someone who hasn’t got a home think that they have got one.

There was strong support from the conference floor AND from the Party leadership for renationalisation of rail, extension of concessionary fares, other bus-friendly measures, and improvements for pedestrians and cyclists.

Kerry McCarthy, our new Shadow for DEfRA, spoke up for bees, badgers and against fracking – but she also announced the wholehearted support of the Labour Party for the drive for British food, and in support of British farmers.

Lilian Greenwood pointed out that affordable public transport is not just important for economic growth, it also combats social isolation. Public transport needed to be provided in the Public sector for the public interest. She pledged Labour would campaign for affordable fares for all. There would be investment in buses and branch lines, and main lines. But we needed HS2 and other high-speed lines too. And she promised that if the Tories try to reprivatise Network Rail we will fight them every step of the way, and renationalise at the first opportunity.

Jonathan Ashworth spoke about campaigning. We should start now, reminding the voters of all the lies the Tories told before the election and then ditched immediately after:

  • Tax Credits
  • Child Benefits
  • Rail Electrification (including the Felixstowe to Nuneaton line)
  • House of Lords reform
  • Employment Support Allowance for disabled people
  • Child Maintenance
  • Social Care for the elderly
  • Renewable Energy
  • Volunteering Programmes
  • Affordable Housing targets

and others too numerous to mention.

Jim McMahon spoke up for the role of Labour Councils. “Devolution” is clearly partly a ploy of the government to shift the responsibility for cuts onto Labour councils, but we can use the powers on offer to give hope to some of our most disempowered citizens – especially young people.

John Healy told us housing is one of the top Labour priorities – I believe it was in 2010 & 2015 as well (and in 1945!) – Labour would oppose the right to buy proposals for Housing Associations and base its housing policy around building more Council houses. We mostly want to own our own homes, he said, but home ownership has dropped under the Tories. Labour had commissioned a report – the Redfern Review – into house building and home- ownership, done jointly with Taylor-Wimpey. In addition to more Council-house builds, and possibly changes in the right-to-buy legislation, Labour would also take a far more robust regulatory role with private sector landlords, including regulating rents.

The debate on “Devolution” carried on at fringe meetings too – that evening the ALC fringe pulled no punches in criticising the whole process. As well as trying to shift the blame for cuts to local government, the process also risked putting too much local power into unaccountable LEPs or other unelected or semi-elected bodies. And it didn’t even fulfil its most important purposes – there are still far too many overlapping boundaries, and not enough power being shifted away from the NHS and in particular CCGs. The best start to empowering local government and making it more efficient would be to make everything coterminous and to sweep away overlapping responsibilities. In addition, the process was being rushed through with virtually no time for any consultation or testing of the proposals.  We needed to keep our heads, and in the final analysis we needed to be willing to pull the plug if the deal on offer was not worth the candle. John Trickett for one was not convinced that the current “devolution” deals would last beyond a single government. It was clear that one thing we DO desperately need to do NOW is to build a greater level of trust between the Labour Councillors and the PLP.

There was some support for the proposed Constitutional Convention, but I made the point that if we are going to do it we have got to make sure that there are people on the Convention who know what they are doing – at present, all the words coming out of John Trickett and others suggest that only bus-drivers and dinner-ladies will be allowed to take part. I think we can look forward to a lot of flak, including from those who have supported Progress up to now, finding reasons for criticising the rest of us because we are too elitist. For my own part, I see nothing wrong in insisting that there are some people who are more willing and capable than others to engage in the difficult discussions that will be needed if we are going to come up with a workable system for local government, elections and the House of Lords that the Labour Party can support. Some involvement in the arguments over the past 30 years might be a start.

And what about the Leader’s Speech? – Well, I had heard that it was going to be a disaster. I had heard from some quarters that only the extreme left would bother to turn up. I had heard that there would be heckling. In the event, the hall was packed to capacity – I don’t know the last time that happened – the incompetence of the Conference Organisers in the past has always managed to leave people out in the queue while there were empty seats in the Hall, and maybe it was their new-found ability to get everyone in which led to the Hall being full – if so, they deserve a heart-felt round of applause. But there was no doubt that the 2-minute standing ovation before he even started, and the various ovations during the course of the speech, were motivated by genuine enthusiasm and support. It was not a rhetorically fiery speech. It was what you might expect from a good speaker if asked to say what they really thought about life, the universe and everything. The one thing you could not possibly say about the speech was that it was in any way contrived – I couldn’t detect a single artificial soundbite.

The one thing Jeremy Corbyn did talk about which everyone else had consigned to the editor’s blue pencil was Trident. He made it clear that there was no way he was going to change his view about the UK’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent. He also made it clear that he knew he could not impose his view on all the rest of us – there would be an open and honest debate within the Party about Trident, and about the nuclear deterrent, and he would pledge to support whatever final agreed position the Party decided on. My strong suspicion is that he would not want to lead a Party that is committed to supporting the renewal of Trident. We are going to have to get on with this debate very swiftly, because there will be votes brought before the House of Commons fairly soon. I would not be at all surprised if Cameron does not seize his opportunity to bring such a vote forward to a date before we have sorted out our differences on this – I think that would be damaging for the country and I hope he realises that, but that hasn’t stopped him in the past.

But the biggest cheer – and the reason he was elected – was for the decisive rejection of Austerity. As Tom Watson said in the closing speech “We are an anti-Austerity Party”.  Whatever else anyone in the room thought, and whatever minor disagreements we will have to iron out over the next 4 years, we can be fairly sure that from now on the defining phrase for our party is that – We are anti-Austerity. At the end nobody stayed seated, nobody refused to clap, the mood amongst almost all the delegates was buoyant, and even the vast majority of the tweets were positive. The only sour commentary came from a couple of well-known pro-Tory bloggers who had contrived to get into the hall, and who cares about them. I did not get the newspapers or watch the television that evening. But I was able to tell Etholle George, with complete candour, that the speech was a good one and the reaction from the Party was great.

Sandy Martin, Labour Group Leader, 28/09/15

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