The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 27 September 2015



What an exhausting day. As I type it’s 9pm, after a day crammed full of Labour. And there are three more days to come! This really sorts out the die-hards from the fly-by-night fair-weathers.

I’ll rattle through my notes as quickly as I can. Everything will be tidied up later.

The morning began with the delegate briefing, 9.30pm. No coffee but orange juice.  Our mission for the morning was to decide what contemporary motions should be debated. These are things which are topical, things that are a matter of emergency/urgency. I voted (in no particular order, you put crosses, not rankings) for the Refugee Crisis, Employment Rights, Housing and License Fee. I didn’t vote for Trident to be debated because, whether you are for it or against it, I’m not sure it’s sensible for us to potentially overturn 40-odd years of policy in the words of the immortal Tommy Cooper ‘just like that’ without properly considering all the consequences, not just in terms of defence, but in terms of the jobs that would be lost, our membership of NATO and so on.

After a brief queue, security, bag check and most terrifying of all, some revolving doors, I entered the Brighton Centre and had a quick mooch around. Lots of stalls, from everything from Friends of Israel to Friends of Palestine and everything inbetween. Some of the stalls had fairground games, mazes and crazy golf. I’m not sure how that raises awareness of Cancer Research but hey, I’ve just blogged about it so maybe it has. I searched in vain for freebies but if there were any they’d gone.

Conference was opened by Peter Kyle, MP for the bits of Brighton that Caroline Lucas isn’t MP of, welcoming us to the sunny town. Jim Kennedy was next (uncannily like The Fast Show’s Simon Day),the Chairman of the NEC.

While the speeches were being made, they were relayed onto two screens above (well, one big screen showing two images, left and right) while a signer appeared on two screens at the far left and far right. He looked a bit like the famous Stephen Twigg, but I suspect it was not him. My allocated seat is bang in the middle, 6 rows back. So if anyone is getting on telly it will probably be me.

Jeremy Corbyn was on stage too, of course, no tie, slightly crumpled suit. The slogan is Straight Talking: Honest Politics which is very no-nonsense if a little bit like something a Bad Cop would say.

Next, according to my notes, Harry Donaldson welcome the 11,000 attendees to the conference and explained the rules which I have already forgotten. There was then some discussion about contemporary motions that hadn’t made the list, so the people who had submitted them had a chance to make their case. Even this early it was interesting, I think, that people are using the phrases that Labour has a spirit of inclusivity and that there is a real appetite for change as ways of making their case i.e. ‘In the spirit of inclusivity, I think I should have a biscuit, out of a real appetite for change’.

I’m sure the people who were making cases had valid points but my feeling was to just get on with it. There was a mildly disconsolate atmosphere in the hall – a lady shouted, pointing out that having six men on stage and one woman was not a great look (the arrival of Margaret Beckett, Mary Turner and Angela Eagle later changed the dynamic) and the vote on the motions was so close that it had to go cards (these things can look different from where you’re sitting in the hall, I imagine). There were one or two rumblings until it was decided to do a card vote.

Then there was a minute’s silence in respect of fallen comrades and various members received awards for distinguished service.

Ian McNicol then came on with two questions. Why did we lose and how can we win again? Two very good questions; all we need to do now is answer them.

Margaret Beckett then reported the preliminary findings of the commission/taskforce/hit squad findings on the reasons for Labour’s defeat. ‘Learning the lessons’. At this stage, there  were some graphs. The conclusions will follow.

Mary Turner then gave a short speech on the awfulness of what the Tories are doing, followed by contributions from delegates, and Angela Eagle on Making Policy Better and making the policy-making process more effective. Because clearly if we end up with policies engraved on a random obelisk in the final week of an election we could probably do better.

Lunchtime! Except I had no lunch. Instead I attended the Southern Policy Centre’s fringe meeting about Southern Powerhouses, hosted by Professor John Denham of Winchester University. It was all about the ‘policy challenges’ in the area including Hampshire, Kent, the Isle of Wight etc.

(note: if you are not interested in Southern Powerhouses, please skip to next brackets)

Points of interest: in SE inequalities are greater than possibly anywhere else due to high housing and commuting costs. In Winchester a child as a 4/5 chance of going to university, whereas elsewhere in the region it’s 1/5. The other speakers were – apologies if I’m misreading my notes – Annalise Dodds, Simon Letts, Ed Turner, Emma Reynolds.

Simon Letts: England last remnant of British empire. Pro-devolution. Some of Labour’s strongest leaders are in local government. Devolution is Tory attempting to impose their brand on N England, make local councils take the blame for government cuts, but it can also lead to better policy making. Hampshire/IOW have prepared a prospectus/pitch for devolved powers.

Hampshire/IOW is a net contrubitor to the exchequer. Devolution would give us ability to possibly build affordable housing, to take over work programmes, transport, health and social care, but no-one is quite sure how the last one of those will actually work.

Annalise Dodds: Inequalities greatest in SE, people relying on housing benefit because of high rents. Also most internationalist population (in some areas more than others obviously) with businesses more likely to trade with Europe. But we also have more need for infrastructure, particularly linking Southampton to Portsmouth and along the south coast. Problem with LEPs (Local Enterprise Parternships) not well-organised, uncoordinated, fragmented system.

 Areas of particular local relevance: Transport, housing, migration and welfare.

Steve Reid: Northern powerhouses taking credit for work of Labour councils who are driving change. Tory plan to use devolution to pass blame for cuts. Politicians not trusted – answer is for politicians to trust public more, two-way-street, trust the public and they will trust us. Devolution good in terms that central government will let go of power, particularly ring-fencing how much councils can actually do, and maybe they can bypass central government dictat to sell off council/housing association housing. Housing crisis is worse in Tory areas. Elected mayor probably inevitable/compulsory consequence of devolution.

Ed Turner from Oxford. Warns that devolution can be used by Tory councils to cut social housing, care costs. In Oxford recruitment is a problem due to high cost of housing. Benefit caps = social cleansing.

Emma Reynolds – in SE housing costs so much more than elsewhere in UK so hardship of those on low wages greater than areas where housing is cheaper. Suspects devolution will get forgotten by Tories for SE, they’ll do Cornwall and think they’ve done it. Collapse in Libdem vote an opportunity for Labour in SE.

Southern Policy Centre aware of issue of ring of towns with below average incomes all along coast.

(welcome back)

Sunday afternoon. Back in the main hall for speeches on Better Politics and reports on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But first a tribute to Harriet Harman, first with a video and then a speech from Angela Eagle.

Now, I don’t know if I’m speaking out of line here, but by this point I was beginning to notice something odd. When discussing the great achievements of the last Labour government, it was always ‘Labour’ that achieved it. Or Harriet. Curiously, Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan and Clement Attlee all got namechecked fairly frequently in speeches, and yet no-one seemed prepared to even utter the dreaded words Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. (And as for all our other ministers who served during the first decade of this century, forget it!) It just struck me as curious, that all the things that were achieved during Tony Blair’s time as prime minister were somehow done despite him or without his involvement, rather than being the direct result of him winning three elections so that things like the minimum wage and sure start and tax credits could become a reality. If an alien had landed in the conference it would think Harriet Harman had been our leader from 1994-2010.

Back to Better Politics. Johanna Baxter talked about how awful the Tories are, that they intend to ‘cripple all opposition’, but she felt there was an appetite for change in a spirit of inclusivity. We need to increase our depth of engagement.

Then John Lyons TD of Ireland gave a rather good speech on gay equality in Ireland, glad to know things are getting better somewhere. Mandy Telford followed, making a heartfelt speech but in my notes it says ‘not much new TBH’. The emphasis right now is on voter registration and the problem of boundary review, which is frustrating IMHO as the real issue is electoral reform, not complaining because our current ridiculously unfair system is being stacked against us. But that’s just my view.

If I read my handwriting correctly there was a motion for all-women shortlists to apply to all elections including by-elections, with more transparency.

Next was Kate Green... who... was... not... the... most... natural... in the have... heard. I’ve heard faster séances.

But then there was Gloria De Piero, a name familiar to everyone’s email inboxes. Now, I don’t want to be unkind, but in my notes I’ve written OH MY GOD SHE’S TRYING TO BE FUNNY. She had the forced gung-ho jollity of a make-up sales rep crossed with Gracie Fields about to roll up her sleeves and lead the factory workers in a bare-elbowed singalong of Sing As We Go. Her main point was that Jeremy’s leadership has inspired lots of young people to join, which is great if that’s the case (because there were conspicuously few in the audience).

Next was Ian Murray (my notes say Scottish MP looks like Peter Kay) who mentioned Gordon Brown in passing. He was followed by Kezia Dugdale who was introduced with a short film of her being interviewed by Labour’s next intake of Scottish MPs. I’m being mean. She was really very, very good. And she even mentioned Tony Blair! Admittedly in terms of saying Scottish Labour now had the most members it’s had since Tony Blair was Prime Minister, but at least she said the dreaded words.

She was a genuinely great speaker, I thought, and will do great things in Scotland. Then there was another video about Wales, in which Jeremy Corbyn explained that his plan is to invest in the economy. It sounds a bit tautologous so I look forward to finding out what it actually means.

The next speaker was Nia Griffith who had an extraordinary ability to make good news sound like bad news. She listed Labour’s achievements in Wales like they were a series of disasters. But at least she, like Kezia, re-affirmed their commitment to the UK staying in the EU (Jeremy applauded Kezia).

By this stage, by the way, the pig jokes were wearing thin. I think every pig joke had been made on twitter by approximately 3 minutes after the news first came out. I’m not entirely sure that just using words to do with pigs even counts as a joke.

The next speaker was Carwyn Jones who was great, I think, and made good news sound like GREAT news which is what you want. A bit like Gus from Drop the Dead Donkey. He mentioned that Doctor Who being made in Cardiff has sparked Wales’ cultural renaissance, which is demonstrably true.

Next was Vernon Coaker from Northern Ireland (my notes say ‘Big Vern’) who was tough and no-nonsense, which is what you want for Northern Ireland. He was followed by Emily Brothers who gave a wonderful, funny and moving speech about her treatment by the Murdoch press.

And finally was Chris Bryant, who should still be shadow Culture secretary because he was bloody good at that. He gave a very good speech, my notes say ‘strong appeal to honesty’, mostly about how awful the Tories are, vote-rigging scare-mongers, with democracy itself under threat.

But mostly excitingly for me – see previous blogs – was that he mentioned a plan. Not an election strategy, but a short-term plan to FIGHT the government in the commons, because they only have a tiny majority (I wish people said this more than going on about how terrible our defeat supposedly was), that we should combine forces with other parties and Conservative rebels, that we should fight the Conservatives in the Lords – and that we should be proud of the achievements of the previous Labour government. Okay, so he lost momentum when it became a history lesson about Ragged Trousered Philanthropists but at least he showed a bit of passion. Maybe he could be our next leader!

After that I grabbed some food and headed to the cinema for the meeting of Progress. Which was completely different. A much younger audience, for a start – I’d say about half the people there were under 25. An informal, friendly atmosphere.  Peter Kyle introduced the ‘rally’, the idea being that each person would have about 4 minutes to talk.

And it was great. Suddenly the speakers were being informal and showing their personalities and, in some cases, their senses of humour. It kept things moving, it didn’t get boring, it was interesting and thought-provoking but fresh, and, you know, inspiring. I felt like I belonged, that this was my Labour party at last! It was great fun. If the whole conference was run on the same basis... oh, we’d win, we really would. Because the moment our politicians stop ACTING like politicians they’re actually bloody good!

They got through a lot of speakers. Here’s the highlights, that I can make out from my notes (it was dark and very fast!)

John Woodcock – we must be credible radical left, Keep fighting!

Kezia Dugdale – much better speech than in the main hall – Labour must not retreat into comfort zone. We should offer something different. The SNP are NOT left-wing. Learn from mistakes of referendum, make case for Europe. Nothing is inevitable.

Chuku Ummunua – Labour is broad church but with same values, there is nothing glorious about opposition for oppositions’ sake, don’t do down the last Labour government (big cheer!), Labour should have a better connection with members when in office, we should harness energy of new members.

Tristram  Hunt – who knew Tristram Hunt was funny? He was great. Miles away from his stilted performances on Question Time. He actually had a funny joke about the pig thing. Also, Corbyn has tapped into populist current, discontent, this is a wake-up call for Labour to reboot, debate is not the same as division, Jeremy wants debate so let’s give it to him, we can only win from the centre.

Mary Creagh – the challenge of change, we must honour our record of government, our two priorities should be Europe and refugees.

Andy Burnham – Rather wonderfully he started by thanking everyone for their third preferences. Corbyn’s win means Labour has to change its style (I was going to shout ‘Bingo’ if he said Westminster Bubble) but ‘we gotta be electable’ and – regarding Tony Blair’s interventions – ‘we have lost the plot if we don’t listen to the man who won three elections’ (I’m paraphrasing, these are NOT exact quotes, just to be clear). Another very big cheer. Politics is not about making ourselves feel good or taking the moral high ground. We must make ‘the radical electable’.

Ivan Lewis – No thanks Tim Farron, we live in Labour, we’ll die in Labour. (Not quite sure that’s what he said, sounds odd reading my notes back). We can only win if we’re trusted on money. TONY BLAIR WAS A GREAT PRIME MINSITER. Now they’re all doing it!

Eddie Izzard – I’ve been to France, doing a show in French. Britain doesn’t run away, we can’t run away from Europe. We have to make Europe work because if we can’t get Europe to work then what hope does the rest of the world have. We have to make it work to show rest of the world it can be done.

Lucy Powell – Decided to make more of a difference inside the tent. Jeremy has tapped into something. Politics is broken (another catchphrase of the day).

Vaughan Gething - He was also proud of Tony Blair (hooray!) and the biggest betrayal of the people we want to help would be for the party to get itself in the position where it can’t win.

Heidi Alexander – Said yes to Shadow Health job because it was the right thing for the party (and she’ll be very good at it). There is no room on the left for two left-wing parties. Maturity and unity!

Peter John – Proud of Tony Blair AND Gordon Brown. We should also be proud of what we are doing in local government right now.

Mandy Telford – an even more heartfelt speech than earlier in the day. ‘Angry left-wing feminist’. End to all-male platforms!

Emma Reynolds – We lost the election because we were the risk and the Tories were the safer bet. We must have economy credibility and a passion for power!

Stella Creasy – Three points! We must have a sense of purpose to inspire. A positive view of the world to come (embrace creativity). And we need new systems of ideas, mutualising things etc.

John Hannett – An AVID SUPPORTER OF NEW LABOUR. Yes, he even used the words ‘New Labour’. Why did we lose? Because we were too quick to demonize our own record. And because we tried to cherry-pick areas that were easy for us, we didn’t have policies on the hard stuff. It is the responsibility of the Labour leader to talk like a Prime Minister and to talk to the whole country.

Caroline Flint – If people think all parties are the same it’s because we haven’t talked about our achievements enough and because what was once radical has become mainstream. We have avoided difficult conversation for too long. This is our Labour party and we’re not going anywhere.

A sentiment echoed by the undoubted star of the evening...

Liz Kendall (wild applause and standing ovation) – Progress is vital as a source of new ideas, needed now more than ever. Turbulent years ahead for country, property price bubble etc. We must be serious about winning the next election, with a positive outgoing vision. Widening the gap between our party and the views of the public is wrong way to go. We need to be radical and credible. (Another recurring phrase)

Amazing, eh? All those people, all those points of view, in just over an hour. Bang bang bang! If we did the whole conference the same way I’d be on a train home by now.

11pm. Time for bed. More tomorrow!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that especially on Progress and I am glad some people are recalling what New Labour achieved and how they helped our less advantaged as well as the voters as a whole.
    Many more of us from Progress would have loved to be there but had job commitments. I hope Progress in the coming months will arrange
    Something for those unable to attend Brighton.