The most important event of the Conference for me was the informal meeting of National Policy Forum members we held on Tuesday. It was not a publicly accessible meeting, but there was nothing we discussed which we would not want everyone to know about.
The National Policy Forum (NPF) has the potential to be an extremely effective way of connecting all the members of the Party with the Party’s policy. When people join a political party it is not JUST to deliver leaflets – vitally important though that is – it is also to be a part of a political movement which is going to change our world, and members want to be able to help determine the direction of that change.
I have been privileged to be a part of a Policy Commission that is actually working. We organised our first Regional Policy Forum in Witham on Transport, and spent a full day capturing a whole range of ideas and concerns – these were fed into the Policy Commission on which I sit, and that has met 4 times this year. I have been able to attend twice in person and once on the phone, and I’ve taken part in an effective additional phone conference too.
There is a slight preponderance of East of England input into the Transport Commission’s submission because we did things properly in our Region. Respect is due to Cameron Scott and Alex Mayer for organising the Regional input (in most of the policy areas, not just transport) and to Daniel Zeichner MP (shadow minister for buses and stuff!) and above all our excellent Transport Commission Chair, Diana Holland.
Unfortunately the full National Policy Forum has still not met. It is essential that we establish a proper working relationship between the Leadership, the NEC, the Parliamentary Party, the Conference and the NPF. I will be doing what I can alongside colleagues in the NPF to ensure that the Leadership understand how important it is to have a policy-formulation body which can include all members, and not just rely on the very few who are able to speak to motions at Conference.
A session at Liverpool Town Hall heard from the Mayor, Joe Anderson, about the Council’s programme of in-sourcing. I missed his speech as I had been doing my duty by attending a Policy Seminar on education, but I didn’t miss him – in fact I nearly collided with him as he left the Hall. The building is not as big as Manchester, but the Council Chamber is beautiful with wonderfully comfortable red leather seats and polished mahogany arms – still does it for me, much more than grey metal and blonde desktops.
“Oh Joe”, I said, “I’ve come to hear you speak.”
“Don’t worry, lad”, he said, “The main event is still going on.”
Quite a time since I’ve been called “lad”! Anyway, it was an excellent session: in the experience of Liverpool, the absolute essential ingredients for successful in-sourcing are:
- Involve the Trade Unions from the outset
- Have effective communications channels with the service users and the media throughout
- Ensure that there are clear lines of accountability and management control and that they follow the same line – i.e. no responsibility without both the power to fulfil it and the mechanisms to be held accountable for it
They have insourced a high proportion of their services that were privatised by the Lib Dems and are now delivering better services at a lower cost, with better terms and conditions for the workforce. They are about to look at their highways contract with Amey – they say they are keen to share their expertise and experience with any Labour Council that is seeking to insource – it would be great to be able to take them up on that after May!
I also attended the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform rally in the evening. The Electoral Reform Society fringe on Monday was massively oversubscribed and I didn’t get in at all – but, actually, it was the LCER that I really wanted to hear from. Anyway, the LCER hall was full to capacity when I arrived, but the organisers took over the next-door refectory and most of the speakers came through to us after they had spoken in the main hall. We got to sit at tables, drink copious quantities of red wine, and still hear the best speeches. So I never got to hear Stephen Kinnock on the subject, but what I did hear was Chuka Umunna and John McDonnell singing from the same hymn-sheet. It’s not just that we would never have got Thatcher – or this present vicious government – with a proportional representation system, but that for millions of people the First Past the Post system means that their General Election vote is utterly worthless – not just in safe Tory seats but in safe Labour seats too – and all the political focus is on target voters in target seats.
If we are serious about being Democratic Socialists, we need to be serious about Democracy as well as serious about Socialism.
The last day of Conference is often a bit of a damp squib, though we have had rousing speeches from Deputy Leaders in past conferences. Tom Watson spoke yesterday, but I wasn’t able to hear him.
However, the morning speeches brought me to the edge of tears. The whole conference was moved by Alf Dubs, who was rescued from the Nazis by the Kindertransport, and who was rocked with outrage by the fact that Theresa May’s government STILL have not brought a single unaccompanied child over from Calais in a programme that the House of Commons voted to institute.
Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper reminded us that our political beliefs arise from our common humanity, and that we must pursue this issue if we want to have any soul whatever. Children in the Calais camps are subject to physical and sexual abuse and kidnap – when the French authorities last cleared the camp over 100 children went missing – it is anyone’s guess where they have ended up.
And then, Andy Burnham wound up the morning’s debate on Justice with a farewell speech that sounded to an old cynic like me a lot more like a Douglas MacArthur-style promise “I will return!”. He is off to run for Manchester, and I am sure he will be better able to demonstrate Labour values in action to the voters as Mayor of a great Metropolitan than he would be as a front-bench opposition spokesman. He did not express a single word of criticism of the present leadership, though. “I have served this Party under 4 Leaders, and I have shown exactly the same level of loyalty to all 4” he said, as if to shame any of his supporters who might have thought it was ok to be disloyal now.
I say “wound up” but, as the majority of the audience left the chamber, the final winding-up procedure for the session went ahead and Johanna Baxter then gave an emotional farewell, having been voted off the NEC. I was immensely impressed by Johanna’s passion and commitment when I first met her in Colchester a few years ago. Her persistence and determination are a large part of the reason that members of the Scottish Party at last have their own representation on the NEC – a reform that ought to have gone hand-in-hand with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. I was proud to be able to take part in a standing ovation for a bright young member of the Party who still has an immense amount to contribute.
As a non-delegate, I didn’t get to sit at the front of the hall for the Leader’s speech, naturally enough. But the arrangements for people to enter the hall worked very smoothly so far as I could see, and I easily got a seat, right at the back of the hall. I immediately got talking to my two neighbours, both men in their sixties – a Councillor from Brecon and an activist from Liverpool. We were talking – or at least I was talking (some people might say “pontificating”!) – about Party unity and how we would deal with the current situation. My new Welsh friend was deeply pessimistic about his ability to hold his seat in May – I tried to reassure him by quoting our experiences in Suffolk this year. My new Liverpudlian friend told us he felt we ought to know that he was a Corbyn supporter and that he had rejoined the Party because of Corbyn. Most of what he was saying about re-invigorating public services sounded fairly sensible.
Then across the aisle I spotted Derek Hatton, also sitting right at the back but in a fairly prominent spot. “I’ve just spotted one of your friends” I said jokingly, “your ex-Deputy Leader”. I was a bit disconcerted when he waved to Hatton and Hatton waved back. He told me that, yes, they had been great mates when he was a Liverpool Councillor in the mid-eighties. I told him I hoped Hatton had not been allowed to rejoin the Party, and that he would not be allowed to rejoin. I’m not sure how he took that, but he didn’t try to ignore me. I want our Party to be inclusive and a broad coalition, but I draw the line at Derek Hatton.
Corbyn’s speech had almost everything in it that I would want to hear from him, and it was competently delivered. He stressed that we must fight the Tories and not each other, and I hope everyone in the Hall could agree with that. I’m not a great fan of the cult of the personality – I never was with Blair, and I’m not going to start now. But I figure, if I could stay in the Party and fight for what I believe the Party ought to stand for during all the years that Blair was Leader – and yes, I did nearly leave, over tuition fees – then I can do the same with Corbyn as Leader too. I suppose only time will tell.
Suffolk Labour Leader, Sandy Martin