Thoughts In Conference Week

A few weeks ago, it would have sounded realistic to say that Labour was bogged down in internal process and losing momentum, at least if you only read the Guardian or listened to the BBC. In fact, that has never been the case: the membership figures continue to grow and several of the ‘issues’ on which the media have focused have at no time been static, but have been worked through logically and profitably. However, we all go into this week’s conference with raw nerves, worried that the tensions over the democracy review might blow up into a fight, or that anti-semitism accusations might drown out principled debate.

I am hugely relieved to have watched the first few hours of the conference and seen a flawlessly confident party structure absorbing the tensions, addressing the issues head-on and showing a sensitivity to the wide range of voices within the party while keeping the focus determinedly on what really matters: challenging the Tories’ brutality and corruption and preparing to win the next election.

The closest we’ve had to a scandal so far is a distortion by The Guardian of Dawn Butler’s excellent speech to Women’s Conference, in which she referred to the brave history of resistance within Liverpool’s socialist past, which they tried to spin as a call to Labour councillors to break the law. Quoting Progress members (the Blairite pressure group within the party that forced through New Labour’s ‘reforms’, such as the dropping of the commitment to public ownership, in the nineties, and turned Labour into a Tory-Lite capitalist party), the Guardian article tries to raise spectres of Trots cheering city councils to ruin. Of course, Butler did nothing of the sort: it was a reference to the fact that local government cuts are direct assaults upon the poor, embedded in a speech of celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party over the last few years and a rousing call to be ready to campaign against the heartless government which uses those cuts as a weapon against vulnerable people.

This morning, in the main conference, there was some contention over the vote to accept the Conference Arrangement Committee report, as the schedule disadvantages CLPs by not allowing much time to argue over the Democracy Review, which was only published yesterday and supplied to delegates this morning. Eight or nine delegates tabled objections, which were acknowledged promptly, and the CAC report accepted, narrowly, so the Democracy Review debate began on schedule. I would have been happy to see it delayed, in the interests of delegates going into the debate fully prepared, but the debate seems to be lively and informed anyway.

This does not look like a micro-managed showpiece conference, of the sort we became used to in the Blair years: this has substance over style. Ably chaired by the very good-humoured Andy Kerr, this morning’s session, as far as I have watched it, has stayed on track while permitting debate and dissent. Neither, though, does it look like a return to the eighties, where angry voices brought proceedings to regular bitter impasse over their chosen (usually procedural) issue. There really is a sense of unity: the speakers are speaking the same language as the delegates, addressing the issues the delegates are exercised about, because this really is a movement whose leadership are listening to, and being guided by, their membership.

The highlight, so far, has been the speech by the new General Secretary, Jenny Formby, whom I met (just long enough to tell her I intended to vote for her) at a Labour Economics Conference in Southampton back in the spring. The vote to endorse her position was unanimous and met with huge cheers. She then gave the speech that I have been waiting to hear for months: a summary of where we are, what we believe, the challenges we face and have overcome, and what we intend to achieve.

What struck me about Jenny’s speech was that we are living through another of those moments we saw in 2017, when all the fog, all the rubbish thrown at Labour by the establishment and the crony capitalists who think that the Labour Party should either become Tory-lite or go away and die in a corner, is swept away by the clarity of thought that a vast group of people, fired by hope, can achieve collectively. Interestingly, it chimes with the message of this article, which I read yesterday morning, by Lorna Finlayson in the LRB.

We are on track. We can do this. The chaos the Tories have sown is not the normative position of our rightful rulers, but a perverse aberration that has marred democracy for far too long. We can rebuild Britain for the many, not the few, and it looks as though we are going to get the chance.

If you’re in the UK, and would like to be a part of the change, you can join the Labour Party here.

The live stream of the party conference, along with the highlights so far, is here.

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