The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015


The final day!

But not quite my final blog on the conference. Tomorrow I’ll collect my thoughts and do a short blog on my conclusions, what I have learned, tips for future conferences and so forth.

This morning, I did my delegate duty by attending a seminar on Crime, Justice and Immigration. One of my fellow members of the Winchester & Chandler’s Ford had asked me to put forward a few points on their behalf, regarding the problems faced by refugees who have had their initial asylum requests turned down and who are left languishing for years, destitute and in poor housing, waiting for their fresh claim to be processed by the Home Office. As well as the inefficiency of claims being processed (getting lost etc) there is also the issue that under current Conservative plans landlords will be prosecuted if they let out properties to people with no leave to remain, which is a problem for charities trying to house refugees whose initial asylum request has been turned down. I said all this Lord Falconer and members of his shadow justice team.

Other points made in the seminar by the team; Kier Sturmer – double injustice of immigrants undercutting wages while being exploited themselves; question of how free movement in EU is applied. Jack Dromey – Conservatives have cut 17,000 policemen, 20,000 more will go. Three areas that are of priority; child sex exploitation and abuse, banking and internet fraud and terrorism. Neighbourhood policing is the eyes and ears of the police on the ground and a major part of preventing terrorism. Jenny Chapman – Blair was right to be tough on the causes of crime, early intervention is crucial, Sure Start, education is the best form of crime prevention. Lord Falconer – although it is depressing how awful things are, it is positive that the public is now taking an interest in matters of justice such as the scrapping of the Human Rights Act (which he thinks should be taught in schools). Much of the legal system is no longer accessible to the poor. 90% of refugee children are now outside of the scope of the protection of our legal system.

After the seminar I rushed to the main hall. One thing I’ve learned about going to these things is that you can’t do everything and it’s okay to turn up after things have already started. I didn’t miss much, and arrived in time to hear what Lesley Mannaseh TUC speaker had to say. Unfortunately my coffee hadn’t kicked in so I zoned out a bit.

Fortunately it had kicked in for Sadiq Khan, our prospective Mayor for London. He’s not a bad speaker but talks as though his speech has been sabotaged by someone sprinkling random punctuation through it. It’s all. Stop. Start and major. Emphasis. On. The. Words you least expect. The overall effect is rather like William Shatner.  His points were good though; he owes London everything, all the opportunities it gave him he wants every Londoner to have. He will be the most pro-business Mayor London has ever had. He wants a transport system all Londoners can afford to use and all workers to be paid at least a living London wage. He will make his election a referendum on the London housing crisis. Londoners should have first dibs on new homes built in London. He will fight for more powers for the Mayor.

Then there was a the first emergency motion, on Colombia, which seemed perfectly fair to me, basically saying that Conference welcomes the peace process over there.

Unfortunately the emergency motion on Syria was problematic, for me. The problem was that it wasn’t about what Conference believes, but about what Conference believes the Parliamentary Labour Party should do. Essentially, the situation is that Labour MPs have been promised a free vote on military action in Syria – for them to vote according to their consciences. But this bill seemed to me to be an attempt to over-ride that, to cajole, coerce or intimidate our MPs into voting the way that the Conference wanted. Rather than according to their consciences.

That was my first problem with it. My second problem was it said we should oppose the UK bombing ISIS in Syria unless all four of the following criteria are met:

1) Clear and unambiguous authorisation for a bombing campaign from the UN
2) A comprehensive EU-wide plan has to be in place to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees
3) Bombing is exclusively directed at military targets directly associated with Islamic State.
4) Military action is subordinated to international diplomatic efforts based on the idea that ONLY the Syrian government can ultimately retake territory currently controlled by ISIS (i.e. we can’t help them get their country back, only the Syrian government – who are not exactly the good guys – can do so).

And, if you look at those four points, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of scenarios where only 3 or 2 or even 1 of those (perfectly laudable) conditions have been met but where our military intervention could still save the lives of innocent Syrians. What if there is authorisation from the UN (which is unlikely) but no EU-wide plan for refugees? Do we ignore the wishes of the UN? And so on. If a UK plane patrolling a no-fly zone spots an ISIS rocket launcher firing at a town full of civilians – isn’t there a case to be made that that plane should intervene to save lives?

Thing is, although obviously I am against military intervention if it makes the situation worse, and I think (apart from maybe number 4) all of those criteria are things that definitely should happen, I think this was a bad motion because it was a) trying to over-ride the MPs’ free vote and b) trying to impose conditions that would make any sort of military intervention an impossibility. I think, in a rapidly changing conflict, our MPs should be free to make informed decisions without being hidebound to a checklist that may no longer apply.

(And I’m sceptical that ‘international diplomatic efforts’ will get anywhere with ISIS given that it is a death cult trying to bring about the apocalypse. How do you negotiate with people who want to end the world?)

I did knock up a few words but there was no opportunity to speak against the motion. Thank goodness.

A new, aerodynamically streamlined Lord Falconer gave a very entertaining and informative speech. It’s so nice to see one member of the Blair cabinet still around! Justice is now top of the agenda – it is the duty of the state to provide access to justice. And he said Labour should team up with Lib Dems and SNP and Tory rebels to defeat Tories in the House of Commons. We only need 7 or 8 to change sides! Thank goodness – someone finally has a plan! And it’s a Lord from the Blair years!

The speeches in favour of the composite motion on the refugee crisis were powerful but all – as you would expect – in favour of it and covering similar ground to each other. There was a moving speech from a woman seeking justice for her grandfather who had been killed, and the last delegate made the point that our MPs have a free vote.

Andy Burnham was next, and unlike Jeremy and others, to his credit he was willing to talk about the negative effects of free movement of workers in the EU, and that it had a particularly bad effect on the poorest communities. He said that he would put people before profits and make immigration work for everyone; stop undercutting wages and get EU funding for areas affected.

Regarding public safety, he said that in some areas the ‘thin blue line is rubbed out completely’. It was a better speech than Jeremy’s, but by the end Andy was acting like he had won the leadership election, punching the air. Calm down, calm down!

The next section was Health and Care with speakers from the floor supporting the composite motion on the NHS. The GMB delegate mentioned Nye Bevan and shouted ‘solidarity’. I was impressed by a speech made by a chap from Brighton whose family had suffered from medical negligence in the NHS; a lot of people in that situation would turn against the NHS, but this chap made the point that it was the inevitable consequence of cuts.

Luciana Berger, our shadow minister for Mental Health, made the point that one in four of us will suffer from mental health problems.

Heidi Alexander was next. I’ve met her a couple of times, she’s lovely, and she spearheaded an amazing – and amazingly successful – campaign to save Lewisham’s A & E. And it seems I’m not the only one who thinks highly of her. She got a huge cheer as she took the podium – there were even whoops and the odd wolfwhistle from some ardent feminists in the audience.

Her speech was great. She says ‘Jeremy Hunt’ as though it is the rudest swear word in the world (which it is). We built the NHS, now we must save it from £22billion ‘efficiency savings’; patient care will be put at risk, there will be cuts to staff, cuts to pay, cuts to treatment. GET PREPARED FOR THE FIGHT OF YOUR LIFE JEREMY YOU WILL BE SEEING A LOT MORE OF ME. She was the first speaker I’d heard who had structured their speech and delivery – highs and lows, emotion and content, and she was the first speaker I’d heard who was responsive to the audience. She got several standing ovations –spontaneous, leap-to-your-feet ovations, not like the hesitant ones from yesterday. I think she will be fantastic and make a huge difference long before 2020.

Next was Education and Children. Bex Bailey gave an earnest speech despite a mild wardrobe malfunction. There were some strong, moving speeches from speakers from the floor – a chap made the point that you might cut the money but there aren’t fewer kids with special needs, so cutting will just mean they will not get the chances in life they need.

A delegate from Kent described their education system, how some kids didn’t get into any of their first three choice schools. Hmmm. I’m not sure I think that’s how I would come at the problem, to be honest. The whole idea of parental choice is flawed – it’s only parental choice in the sense of schools choosing kids based on who their parents are – but anyway.

Another delegate rather colourfully said that the cuts were not cutting services to the bone. No. They were past that. Now they were “gouging out the marrow from the bones”.

Lucy Powell, shadow Education, gave her speech. And it was a shame, that she’d been so lively at the Progress event but on stage, giving a speech, she was terrible. She started by making a very very strange joke alluding to the reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s divorce in 1999. She’s on a mission to put Education at the Heart of Labour’s offer to the country in 2020. There’s no evidence that Academisation improves standards. It’s wrong that devolution doesn’t include education which is being centralised. She wants local educational oversight over all schools, controlling their intake and with the ability to intervene in failing schools, whatever the type. Grammar schools did not help social mobility. I was impressed that she said she would develop policy underpinned by evidence and hold the government to account, but on the whole I thought her speech was very poor; delivered all on one level in an emotionless, plodding monotone. Over on the other side of the stage Keith Vaz was slow-blinking like he was struggling not to fall asleep.

Then there were the votes. I voted for the motion on the refugee crisis and against the motion on Syria. I wasn’t alone, there were about a 100 of us. It would’ve been really weird if I was the only one. It was the only vote passed which wasn’t unanimous.

Tom Watson! I love Tom Watson, and have done so ever since he was Wolfie Smith’s sidekick in Citizen Smith. His speech was energetic, and I was glad to hear more about how Labour is going to extend employment rights to the self-employed – I’m self-employed and my boss is a right bastard, I can tell you. Microbusinesses are the future. He loves his numbers, does Tom, and went off on them at one point. Labour will refashion itself as a digital party – sounds dangerously close to a Plan – we have to do things online, not just do things differently but do different things. Labour needs to look like the people it seeks to represent.

There was a bizarre bit in the middle, though, where Tom asked 'And what is it that unites us as a party? It's called unity." That's an infinite logical regression, isn't it?

A bit of advice, though, Tom. Please don’t leave a long pause between “If we don’t speak for the 0-9ers” and “We will never win a general election again”. People can make a clip of you saying just the second bit out of context and put it on the internet! And the same goes for leaving a gap between “We have to be the party of everybody, or” and “We’re the party of nobody”. Hostage to fortune!

And then, in tribute to Tom’s sitcom days, the hall sang the theme tune to Citizen Smith. Except for the bit about ‘Power to the people’ at the end, which would’ve been fun. But seriously; for years I’ve seen these party conference singalongs on the telly and thought they made everyone there look really bad, really stuck in the past and out of touch, like a bunch of teachers at school assembly, and having experienced it from within I haven’t changed my mind. As for bloody Jerusalem... what is this, Last Night at the Proms? I followed our leaders’ example and exercise my right to do a Corbyn.

I’d rather sing something that everyone likes. Something with a spirit of inclusivity. Because I have an appetite for change – for the housing we so desperately need.

But I left the Conference thinking, "Hey, we all did pretty well. A good show of unity, maybe we can make this work after all..."

And then I got home, checked the news and discovered it was already falling apart.

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