The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 28 September 2015



Jeremy Corbyn has decoys. It’s an odd thing, wandering around the Labour party conference. Every now and then you think, hello, that’s Jeremy Corbyn over there. But then you look at again and discover that, no, it’s just another chap of a similar age with a similar beard and a similar dress sense. But there are a lot of them about. At least twenty. I would take photos but that would be intrusive, and we are gathered together in the spirit of inclusivity, not intrusitivity!

As well as spotting Jeremy Corbyn’s dopplegangers, I was also attending conference. First was Ellie Reeves delivering the report of Britain’s global role. She gave a brief history lesson on Britain receiving refugees, which included the people on the Windrush apparently. Then she went on the awfulness of the Tories. Then was Glenis Wilmot, who said the ‘yes’ campaign should concentrate on what would happen if we left the EU, how awful it would be, and we should add emotion to our argument.

Then there was Alan Johnson, beloved Labour veteran and occasional star of the best reason to scrap the license fee, This Week. If we leave EU, he said, then Scotland will leave the UK. The social dimension to the EU needs to be enhanced not diminished. We may have to use EU rights to fight the TU bill.

What I was hoping to hear was the answer to the question of what our counterargument is going to be to the ‘no’ argument. Because they are just going to repeat ad infinitum that hundreds of thousands of people are coming into the UK every year, stealing jobs, driving down wages, adding pressure to housing, schools and hospitals and so on, and that the only way to stop hundreds of thousands of people coming into the UK every year is to leave the EU. But there was no answer.

(I very nearly asked that. But weirdly I didn’t feel like being booed live on television by 1000 delegates. We are together in the spirit of inclusivity and unity! Plus I have no mandate to make an idiot of myself. So I held back. But I think we do have to have a better answer to the UKIP argument than calling anybody who repeats it a bigot or racist. We can’t just argue on the points that we like, we have to win the argument in the areas we don’t like too)

Maria Eagle reminded us of recent great achievements in Sierra Leone and saving refugees in the Mediterranean, even Afghanistan (some would regard that as a mistake, I wouldn’t). Europe is the centre of the world, we need to widen debate. She mentioned she was in favour of a nuclear deterrent but Jeremy had still asked her to be Shad Fo Sec.

Paul Kenny of the GMB was next, we have to be in Europe to protect workers rights, remember who Labour was founded to represent, the clue is in the name (pregnant women?)

(He was dead against sharing a platform with the CBI. I’m not convinced. If we’re making the argument that being in the EU is good for business why would we set ourselves up in opposition to the CBI? If they’re not sharing a platform with us they’ll be sharing a platform with David Cameron.)

Delegates reminded us this would not be a vote on Cameron’s ‘reforms’, we should campaign for a principled, unconditional unequivocal yes. There were no dissenting or even differently nuanced opinions (hence my own reluctance to poop the party).

Diane Abbott, also of everyone’s favourite Thursday night televisual trainwreck This Week, made it clear that outward-looking internationalism is at the heart of the Labour movement. Rather than inward-looking internationalism, presumably. She said she would like to ‘single out’ Yvette Cooper for her work on refugees which is an odd way of saying ‘thank’. She was against intervention in Syria because she does not approve of ill-fated military intervention, and she has clairvoyantly decided it will be ill-fated in advance. She’s not my favourite politician in the world, as you may have gathered, but she was strong on international development and improving the lives of women in poor countries, and more power to her for that.

Next was Hilary Benn, who was a powerful speaker with a very considered turn of phrase, where every word had been thought through. Re: Syria “Each death is a rebuke to the world’. He’s against boots on the ground intervention without a UN security council resolution (on past experience I’m sceptical that anyone will be left to save by the time the UN agrees to act) but he was emphatic that “This has got to stop”. And keen on a Palestinian state.

Jenny Formby was next, briefly saying that Jeremy Corbyn will solve everything, she didn’t go into details how.

Angela Eagle was next (there are two Eagles in the shadow cabinet). Most of her speech was more stuff about how awful the Tories are and how awful the TU bill is. We need a “race to the top” to improve the economy. She says Britain has been leading the world in a green economy (really? I mean, really? Compared to Germany or Sweden?) and says we should work with business but she didn’t go into details. And then her speed ended with “and that’s how we will win a race to the top!” as though she had just explained how.

There were then delegates on the various motions – John Hamett on how we must fight the extension of working hours on Sundays, workers must have a work-life balance – I think he made a very good point that opening for longer hours won’t mean people have more money to spend in shops, it won’t boost economy.

More delegates spoke against the TU bill. Len McCluskey growled that the “Mentality of a one-party state is creeping in” and then gave a VERY ANGRY POETRY RECITAL. I’m sure Emily Dickenson wrote her work to be bellowed in righteous, desk-stabbing fury.

As before, the delegates were all pretty much saying the same thing, no difference of opinion or even nuance. The most memorable moment was when Cathy Atherton got her wheelchair stuck and Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell gallantly leapt in to help.

Margaret Beckett gave a short speech on the stability and prosperity annual report. There were no graphs this time, alas, but she thanked Ed Balls for his hard work. Ed Balls! There’s a blast from the past. Bring back Ed Balls I say. He got a huge round of applause, mainly from me.

And then it was time for the speech of our shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. He began by saying he rejected austerity politics, and then asked, rhetorically, what does austerity mean. To my shame I couldn’t help thinking it means (c/o Wikipedia)

In economics, austerity is a set of policies with the aim of reducing government budget deficits. Austerity policies may include spending cuts, tax increases, or a mixture of both.

...but he went with the definition of the Conservative party and the right-wing media, that austerity is and only is spending cuts. And I’m afraid my confidence in him didn’t soar when he said we should ‘pay down the deficit’but I’m sure it was just a slip of the tongue.

Most of his speech was what you’d expect and which no-one would disagree with. A real living wage. Fairer more progressive taxation (fairer AND more progressive). Make multinationals pay their taxes! And – actually I thought this bit was brilliant – we should TEST our plans to make sure they work before implementing them. This is a breakthrough, I think. Politicians actually using the scientific method to find best practice rather than just following ideology and blind faith. So hooray for that.

He went on. We need a national investment bank. New forms of companies, mutualisation. We should review the remit of the bank of England to include other things besides inflation. HMRC needs to modernise and reduce avoidance (they could sort out their website too IMHO). We must have “pragmatic idealism” and – this was another good bit – he wants all the good people who left to come back.

I don’t know. I thought the bit about testing plans was fantastic. And asking good people to come back was also a lovely thing to say. The rest was kind of what you’d expect, for better or for worse. Though there was a weird bit where he said “We don’t need snappy slogans. We need straight talking and honest politics”, which is our snappy slogan.

After we broke for lunch I went off to the fringe for the European Parliamentary Labour Party and S & D Group in the European Parliament – A New Agenda for Social Europe: Building on the Past to Confront an Uncertain Future (capitalisation is the house style). I’d missed the beginning, because of John McDonnell, but it was an interesting ‘bonus feature’ for the earlier EU discussion. Cath Speight re-iterated Paul Kenny’s wish that Labour should not share a platform with the CBI (it’s not part of the motion fortunately) though Alan Johnson said, when asked, he’d be happy to share a platform with anybody who wasn’t trying to grind down the workers (I paraphrase). Mary Liddell of the Telegraph warned us to beware, that ‘yes’ in the referendum is not a foregone conclusion. Alan Johnson stressed we should face head-on the issue of sovereignty and he did thankfully explain how he’d argue against people saying too many people were coming into the country, by pointing out that being in the EU means we take less refugees than we otherwise would (because they can’t get from Calais to Dover) and if we were outside the EU there would be more immigrants coming from outside of Europe, not less. I’m afraid to say not only was I not convinced that argument would sway a UKIP supporter, I wasn’t convinced it would make sense to anyone who was paying attention. We should stay in the EU in order to keep out refugees? It’s topsy-turvy. We need a clearer message than that. And we can’t just pick and choose to argue on the points where we can win. We need a better answer or we will lose.

My next fringe meeting was about UK Music, an area of particular interest to me, not just for old times’ sake but because what applies to UK music applies to the rest of our creative industries. Michael Dugher, who knows how many string sections were on each Beatles record and how they got screwed with the Northern Songs deal (okay he got it slightly wrong but this is not a Beatles trivia competition). His points were that the creative industry is an INDUSTRY and should be treated as such, equal as other industries. We should defend the BBC, it makes a huge contribution to creative industries. Labour is for workers and artists, musicians and writers are WORKERS (Yes!)

James Heath from the BBC – BBC is largest investor in UK creative economy, tune of £2 billion, their focus is not on cutting back but on doing more for less.

A lady from the CBI (I’m sorry, I didn’t get her name) made point that there are new models, crowdfunding, digitisation, consumers more willing to pay for content, creative industry sector is growing by 10% a year (that’s just my Big Finish work TBH) and worth £77 billion (okay maybe not). It is a huge ‘soft power’ influence of UK elsewhere in world.

John Kampfner of the Creative Industries Foundation asked 'How come the fastest-growing sector of UK economy struggles to get its collective voice heard?' It is all that people associate with Britain. When David Cameron went to China he met a Chinese student whose first question to the Prime Minister was ‘when will there be a new series of Sherlock?’ (Because in China they’d lock Moffat up if he didn’t produce a dozen episodes a year. “Write more Sherlock or you never see your family again!”) He went on, we must diversify content to reach a wider audience. One in 11 jobs in UK are in the creative industries. Including me.

I was back in the main hall in time to hear the speech made by our shadow Work and Pensions secretary, Owen Smith. He stressed that those two words, Work and Pensions, would be the words that would lead us back into power. So it was kind of strange that after that, for the whole of his speech, he never mentioned Pensions again. If it was down to me they’d be line one page one of our manifesto (because old people VOTE), but Owen had other stuff to talk about. A “new generation” of Labour. A list of different types of workers Labour represents (no creative industries, no freelancers). More stuff on how the Tories are awful. How Labour will introduce a Proper Living Wage (my capitalisation). And how Labour will build the housing we so desperately need.

That’s another catchphrase that’s entered the lexicon along with spirit of inclusivity and appetite for change. If ever you mention housing it’s the housing we so desperately need. I’ve heard it so many times the next time I play Monopoly I’ll be asking for the housing I so desperately need. I mean, it’s true, it is housing we so desperately need, but once you make it a catchphrase it starts losing its meaning (see: aspirational hardworking families). Excuse me, I'll just have another glass of the wine I so desperately need.

I wish he’d said more (anything) about pensions and not bothered with the dumb jokes. We need to “smash the Tory welfare trap”.

After him was Michael Dugher, giving his speech proper to the main hall (the previous thing was a fringe event). After a round up of recent sport things (lost on me) he moved on to the Tories cutting arts council budgets and council arts budgets when we need sustained investment in arts, culture and ‘grassroots sport’. IMHO sport can look after itself, it has loads of money, but I realise that’s my own personal prejudice for getting picked last for games in 1985 rearing its grudgemental head.

He went on. We need a fundamental rethink to tackle regional disparities and we need more fairness in funding. He’s launching a review, a new plan for publically funded arts and culture.

And the Tories are a “clear and present danger” to the BBC. Narrowing its remit. Cutting it down. Attacking the principle of public sector broadcasting. When £1 of license fee money becomes £2 added to economy.

On the one hand, I loved this. I agree with him totally. I support the BBC and I think if Labour is for anything it is for campaigning for the BBC. But on the other hand, I couldn’t help thinking that the more Labour campaigns for the BBC, the more it will convince Tories and the people who are against the BBC that they are right to think that the BBC is a ‘left-wing’ organisation and that they are right to attack it. But then again, they are already convinced of that 100% so I’m not sure anything that Labour could do could make any difference. Someone has to stand up for the BBC and I’m so glad that Labour are now 100% for it. Because the BBC is our CULTURE and it MAKES US LOADS OF MONEY and it MAKES US LOOK GOOD ABROAD and those are all things that we can’t get, and will never get, anywhere else. It’s another NHS.

After Michael it was time for the treasurer’s report. Keith Vaz warned everyone not to try to leave, he had already had all the doors locked. We learned that the Party while is back in the Red is no longer in the red (I can’t believe they didn’t make that joke, sitting duck) and will be re-opening its diversity fund and local campaigns fund.

Then there was discussion about a change to the rules of the NEC selection. I read the proposal, it made some sense but if you read it closely you could spot areas where it was open to abuse IMHO, so it had to be rejected. All the other proposals, mostly correcting typos in the rules, were passed unanimously. I was so tempted just to stick my hand up as a ‘no’, like shouting out when the vicar asks ‘is there any just cause or impediment?’ at a wedding but sanity prevailed.

After that, a quiet, intimate fringe meeting with Progress to see ideas being pitched about how Labour can help the self-employed – which by 2018 will be more people than are working in the public sector – and so the next time a Labour Works & Pensions secretary makes a speech he should include freelancers and sole traders. The discussion touched on copyright theft which is, of course, a personal axe that I like to grind, so I gave a very very abbreviated version of my 30-minute rant on how we should stop people ripping off our intellectual property, how the default should be that any work is OWNED and not in the public domain, and that anyone who sticks one of my books up on the internet should have their goolies chopped off (I didn’t get to the last bit but it was implied). Peter Kyle MP humoured me with a look of fear in his eyes.

And that was Monday. Tuesday is leader’s speech. Should be interesting, not just in terms of the speech but in terms of the atmosphere and surrounding brouhaha. In the words of a famous Brighton resident - Stay tuned!

That reminds me, I must have a ride on the J-NT bus.

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