I started the last day of Conference well with a radio-interview with Etholle George.
At least one person thought it had gone on too long and that I was boring. I don’t agree – yes, I know that sounds vain but I hope I’m big enough to know when I’ve been mediocre and I don’t think I was on this occasion. And because being sane does not make a good story – “Party goes on believing most of the same things and continues to promote the same ethos and policies” is not a great headline. Yes, I know there are some policies that will change, but actually whether or not Labour supports the renewal of Trident is NOT what is going to determine whether or not people vote for us in 2020. Whether or not members of the Labour Party spend the next 4 ½ years slagging each other off because they do/don’t support Trident MIGHT WELL determine the next election. Whatever else we do, we must all swear to ourselves now that we will not end up in April 2020 sitting on either end of a television panel attacking each other over our foreign policy.
Let’s be clear: this Conference could have been a disaster. Instead, I think it has been something of a triumph of Party Unity.
I didn’t make best use of the rest of the early morning – having got to an 8am fringe which was cancelled, I then discovered that I hadn’t brought any of my notes from the previous day with me (which is why you are getting these last 2 blogs a day late – for which I’m very sorry). So I got to enjoy a leisurely breakfast instead.
We started the final plenary session with Syria. The whole of the Conference was appalled and disgusted that the Sun is trying to use the picture of the dead Aylan to whip up a campaign to bomb Syria. Just as they did with Iraq, the Sun – and the rest of the Murdoch empire – has no interest in involving its readers/listeners/viewers in the difficult moral questions about who will get hurt, or even about what sort of outcomes we might hope to achieve and how. And they will have no compunction in blaming the terrible outcomes on whoever they feel like – usually the Labour Party/Labor Party (Aus)/Democrat Party (US) – for the outcomes EVEN IF (in fact probably ESPECIALLY IF) the aforementioned parties have caved in to pressure from Murdoch and done precisely what he was calling on them to do in the first place.
There is no evidence whatever that more UK or US bombing in Syria is going to induce people to stop joining ISIL/ISIS/DAISH – in fact quite the reverse. The bombing in Iraq is in support of, and with the agreement of, the legitimate government, and there is a sane and credible alternative to DAISH (Al-Dawlah Al-Islamiyah fe Al-Iraq wa Al-Sham) both in the centre of Iraq, with the Baghdad government, and in the Kurdish regions, and up until now the Labour Party has not spoken out against our use of armed force there. I do not believe myself that it would be sensible for us to do so. But the situation in Syria is completely different – not only is there no government with which we would wish to do business inviting us in and giving any intervention legitimacy, it is also perfectly clear that at least as much of the death and destruction being heaped on the people of Syria – and causing them to flee in their millions – is from the so-called government of Assad, as it is from the murdering zealots of DAISH. The only body that will have the legitimacy, and ultimately the worldwide authority, to put forward a workable plan for ending this terrible conflict, including stopping the paymasters for the 2 sides namely Russia and Saudi Arabia, is the UN. That is why, however traumatic and emotionally moving the sight of the suffering of the Syrian people might be – and we need to be emotionally moved by them, otherwise we are morally dead – the right response is to work within and at the behest of the United Nations, and not otherwise. It is testament to the openness and genuine plurality of the Labour Party that the opposite view was proposed by a young delegate from Liverpool, was listened to carefully, and the speaker was applauded warmly, but in the end the delegates could see the sense of the original motion and it was overwhelmingly passed.
Lord Falconer started by telling us that the problem for commentators faced by himself and Jeremy Corbyn together was that they were too alike! Certainly they look a bit more similar now that Charlie has lost over 5 stone. But the point he was getting at was that the views they shared, about the fact that society must change and the ways in which it could and should change, were far more significant than any differences they might have. The justice system in the UK is breaking, and the poorest and most vulnerable are bearing the majority of the brunt. 1000s are being forced to represent themselves, victims are being ignored, and there is worse to come. Labour will do everything we can to prevent the repeal of the Human Rights Act, and keep the UK in the European Court of Human Rights. Above all, whether you can get Justice must not depend on how much you earn. Conference showed its determination to present a united front to the hostile media by giving Charlie Falconer a much-deserved standing ovation, but it was not just for that reason – the delegates were genuinely moved by his passion and the force of his argument, and the Tories’ destruction of Justice is one of the most pernicious elements of the present government.
Conference was unanimous in its support for migrants. As several speakers averred, they are human beings like you and I. The number agreed on by the government represents just 7 people per constituency per year – we can surely do far better than that. Should, one speaker asked, we have spread the children let into this country from Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport over 5 years? (and obviously, condemning four fifths of them to the Holocaust thereby).
Andy Burnham started his speech with a joke – towards the end of the Leadership contest he had been addressing supporters in a revivalist chapel underneath a placard stating “Repent! – J.C. is coming”. It was a very well-crafted speech, well-delivered. There were several intended sound-bites, including one about putting Principle before Presentation (which the cynic in me found a little ironic). He repeated the Labour Party’s pledge to fight a national campaign against the Tories’ Police cuts, a message which some police officers still don’t seem to have heard. The speech ended with a fairly rousing call: “I’ve always said I will put my Party first, and I now call on all my colleagues to do the same. Let’s get behind our new Leader Jeremy Corbyn….” – it certainly roused the delegates who gave him an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Everyone knows that the Labour Party is passionate about the NHS, totally opposed to cuts and privatisation, and disgusted and distraught at the death-by-1000-cuts being inflicted by the present government, so I found it hard to be that riveted by the speakers on this subject – which is unfair, because we have a very good set of policies on this issue. The one subject which did grab the attention was Mental Health, which is one of the great scandals of Britain today. Only the Labour Party is taking this crisis seriously enough, and it is absolutely right that Corbyn should have appointed a shadow minister for mental health, Luciana Berger. It was a pity that Luciana didn’t speak in a way which grabbed the audience – it must be extremely difficult and daunting making a headline speech for the very first time at such short notice, and I am sure she will grow into the job.
Heidi Alexander, our new Shadow Secretary of State for Health, on the other hand, was at once friendly and dynamic, terrifying and uplifting. She made a stout attack on the Tories for dismantling the NHS, but she also reminded Conference of the Labour Party’s promised Emergency Budget for immediately after the election, a budget which would have prevented precisely the meltdown that is now afflicting the service, including previously outstanding hospitals such as Addenbrookes. She finished with a battle-cry – “It’s our NHS – it’s not for sale, not now, not ever” – and got an enthusiastic standing ovation in return.
Education was the last service to get the plenary treatment, and there was a surprising amount of new material here, though not necessarily presented in a way that would command the attention it deserved. We will call for early years provision to be extended, work for free school meals for all, extend Special Needs provision in a way which meets the differing needs of the whole range of children and young people, reorganise the funding of school buildings so that every child can go to a local state school. The overarching theme was the determination to change the status of Free Schools and Academies – “We will ensure strong local authority oversight of all schools”. I liked that sentence, it is short and it is meaningful. The same speaker however, Lucy Powell the new Shadow SoS, also said something like “We will address the challenges of tomorrow not the dogmas of today” – why do people write, and read, such stuff??? Anyway, it wasn’t enough to get her the all-important standing ovation.
Finally, we reached the bit that most people in the hall had been waiting for, Tom Watson’s closing speech as Deputy Leader. He started on a light note, and likened Jeremy to an asteroid smashing through the forces of darkness or something. He made a very coherent argument for Labour being the party of small – actually micro – businesses – those that employ under 10 people, and make up a surprising part of our economy – over 1/3 of all private-sector employees. “We have to be the Party of everybody” he said, “and we have to be a Party that is genuinely led by its members”. He also made a plea for the Party to do even more to achieve gender parity, and to give more support to BAME members – we are not doing enough to reflect the ethnic diversity of our society, he said, and pledged to see through a radical improvement on this. Above all, the Labour Party exists because our Society is unfair – the current situation is still as it has always been: Born poor-die poor/born rich-die rich. Opportunities that had been beginning to open up for all were being closed off by the Tories – we must dedicate ourselves to making our society one which values and empowers all. Needless to say, Tom got his standing ovation.
So, was it a good Conference?
I believe it was the best Conference we could have reasonably wished for. As I said to anyone who was listening before the conference started – it doesn’t make that much difference what anyone says during the week, because the media pundits have already decided that the Party is irrevocably split and will trawl through everyone’s words until they find something which they can make fit that predetermined story. But if the conference had gone differently – if current senior figures (ie NOT Mandelson, or Charles Clarke) had taken the opportunity of speaking from the stage about the impending collapse of the Party unless we ditch our Leader, or had urged followers to join one or other organisation to fight against the current leadership; if there had been vituperative debates from the floor with name-calling and close contested ballots; if certain figures had been heckled or booed – then of course the media would have been able to portray our Party as finished with far more credibility. As it was, the outbreak of Party Unity – at least in public – was both more thorough and I truly think more genuine than most of us could have hoped for, and I for one now have far less trepidation about our Party than I had on the way to Brighton.
Sandy Martin, Labour Group Leader, 1/10/2015