Suffolk Labour: Conference Diary, Day 1 & 2

Saturday & Sunday

I’m booked into the Travelodge in Stoneycroft (no, the Liverpudlians I asked didn’t know where that was either) which was cheap but I am regretting it now.  It’s about 4 ½ miles from the Conference, so quite a stiff walk.  On Friday night I got out at the nearest station – Wavertree Technology Park – and walked with my suitcase through the suburban night.  On Saturday I walked 18 miles – to the City Centre and back twice.  I’m sure it’s terribly good for me.

I wasn’t sure in my own mind why I had booked up for the special Leadership announcement event, other than that I wanted to be there to see for myself how people were going to behave and react. I’m very glad I did, because the intrepid Sonia Barker had arranged a radio and TV interview with Andrew Sinclair for immediately afterwards, and he wanted me to take part. I had nothing different to say than I have said already to anyone who asks, but hopefully it will reach a different audience – namely, that what really matters to people is whether they have decent roads and transport, whether their elderly parents can rely on safe social care, whether their children get a good education; and it’s time for politics to move on from personalities.

The East of England Reception was, as usual, in the smallest and hottest room in the Conference Centre – Tom Watson spoke, but not very enthusiastically in my opinion.

I went on to the LGBT disco with Councillor Terry Jermy, and bumped into several friends while there, including Olly Martins (ex-PCC for Bedfordshire) who is now working in Birmingham on the preparations for the City Region.  It was difficult to hold the conversation with him that I would have liked through the thumping beat – I couldn’t even lip-read because of the flashing strobes and dry ice.  I used to enjoy all that sort of thing for a brief period in the early eighties – I’m not quite sure why, now.

Kevin Hind from Bury St Edmunds had pointed out to me at the East of England Reception that I was listed in the Conference Book as one of the presenters of the Labour Coast & Country fringe event on Sunday – I’m glad he did, because I hadn’t realised.  I decided that I really ought to put something together to say, so I spent all of half an hour on the bus into town (I decided not to walk!) jotting something down.  As it happened I wasn’t called upon to say anything at all, but I may as well share with you what I wrote – I include it below.  We had a very useful workshop session and came out with several useful manifesto and campaigning ideas, notably 1) Making the provision of high-speed Broadband connections a planning obligation on developers, like the provision of water or electricity 2) Instituting national Rural Campaigning days, when campaigners will be encouraged to campaign in a location outside of the large towns.

I also attended the launch of the new housing policy booklet from John Healey’s team – “Local Housing Innovations” – which explores some of the things Labour local government is doing to improve the availability of affordable housing.  It was interesting to hear what was being tried, but also depressing – as the speaker from the London Borough of Enfield said, it’s almost as though the Government were watching exactly what we do so that they can work out how to effectively stymie our efforts.

Labour Councils will continue to do their best, but we really do need a Labour Government in order to reverse some of the Government’s recent pernicious measures.

It’s been a long, but interesting couple of days that hopefully sees our Party back on track and ready to take on the Tories.

Now on to Monday!

Suffolk Labour Leader, Sandy Martin

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Local Councils and Labour Coast & Country

When Ed Miliband came out with his “One Nation Labour” idea I wondered what he was on – it seemed bizarre and irrelevant.  We all know (we think) that deprivation is an inner-city phenomenon, that the vast majority of Labour members live in London and the other Metropolitans, that all our representation and organisation is and will always be in towns. What was the point of trying to represent the interests of people who would never vote for us?

This attitude is of course self-fulfilling.  Because we have assumed that we should concentrate on parliamentary seats, the Labour Party has all but disappeared in many places outside of the target seats.  And it has been almost impossible to focus the Party on areas which do not have Labour MPs because they do not currently have a voice speaking up for them within the Party’s hierarchy.  The result has been that we have been talking to ourselves and to our “safe” voters, and not to the people we actually need to convince.  However well we do in Hackney or Manchester, we can’t win without seats like Waveney or Stroud. And even within those Constituencies, the focus is too much on the main town eg Lowestoft and not enough on Beccles or Bungay.

Because the Party is now so weak in more rural areas, we need to build up from ground level. We can’t do that without organisation, and I think some of our CLPs need a bit of outside interference just to make sure they have a committed person who is prepared to do that organising.  All our new members are a massive resource, but it won’t be useful if nobody actually organises any meetings or newsletters or arranges for Candidates to be nominated.

We need to get people elected to Town and Parish councils because that is the best way to show the voters in those areas that we are not weird monsters, we can and do represent people effectively, and the Labour Party is capable of getting people elected outside of Ipswich & Lowestoft.  Then we can look to get more candidates elected to District Councils, and then to County (although obviously we will be fighting to increase our representation on the County in the coming months anyway).

It really does matter whether we have a strong representation at County Council. Labour Councillors can best combat the “Daily Mail” view of Labour by demonstrating that they can and do run effective caring and financially sound local government.  I genuinely believe our success at Suffolk County Council helped contribute to our parliamentary success in Ipswich & Waveney in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

But beyond even those considerations, we must not forget the psychology of the One Nation message.  Older voters, even those living in larger towns, have a vision of our country which involves caring for the countryside, and a perception of Labour being associated solely with townscapes does not help us.  And whether they live in an area or not, people are influenced by the views of everyone else – if we are distrusted outside of the larger towns, that distrust will rub off on those in the towns as well.

If the only message that Labour Conferences and Policy bodies are giving themselves is one focussed on London and Birmingham and Manchester and Leeds, then we will never form a government, and we will not be able to help those cities ether.  That is why we need a group like Labour Coast & Country to refocus the Party on the areas we need to win over, and not just the ones we’ve already won.

 

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