An overheard conversation at the 2015 Labour conference:
"Wow, Jeremy got an incredible reception. It was amazing. I've never seen anything like it!"
"...So this is your first conference then?"
The main event is extremely slickly run. No lulls, hiatuses or pauses. Which is pretty impressive, because on more than one occasion, I left a fringe meeting featuring someone was due on stage, and by the time I’d got to the main hall, they were already on stage.
The ‘refreshments’ symbol on many events is misleading. It may only mean water or instant coffee. If there were sandwiches, by the time you will arrive they will have been snaffled. But if you do want food, Progress have the best.
The main area in which it resembled a Doctor Who convention was in the amount of time spent wandering around a hotel and queuing to get in. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, I’m not what that makes the people who go to a politics convention...
In terms of giving the appearance (and for all I know, the correct impression) of Labour being united, the conference was a success. I can completely understand why Liz, Chuka, Tristram and company decided to skip the Leader’s speech – they would’ve spent the whole speech with twenty cameras jammed up their nostrils like Oscar losers, being scrutinized as to whether they clapped and stood up or not. They would be distractions.
Try to avoid seeing the same politician twice. It’s like the Edinburgh festival. Even if it’s a completely different event, if you see the same comedian, they will do the same act. The same applies here. Even if the topic is entirely different, each politician has their area of expertise, their special bee in their bonnet which they will give an airing at every opportunity. Plus, it makes you feel like you are stalking them, which is awkward.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I think it was a mistake for some delegates to be allowed to get on stage more than once, and that the only rowdiness in Labour comes the left. The only signs of belligerence and rowdiness I saw were on stage, coming from Trade Unionists mostly. The triumphalism of ‘Now we’ve got our party back’ is not in the spirit of inclusivity.
Seeing the NUT stand reminded me, when I was about 8 or 9, that Doug McAvoy of the NUT once came to our house and I played Lego with him. You see – I’ve always had a very constructive relationship with the unions.
As soon as someone says they don’t need snappy slogans you can be sure the next thing they say will be a snappy slogan. The spirit of inclusivity. Radical and credible. Politics is broken. An appetite for change. The housing we so desperately need.
If you’re making a speech and have nothing to say, either spend five minutes talking about how awful the Tories are or go to the Wikipedia entries for Kier Hardie, Nye Bevan and Clement Attlee. I find Tory-bashing and history lessons equally tedious, god knows what the viewers at home make of them. You have an opportunity to put across our alternative prospectus, to make a case for Labour – don’t squander it.
For god’s sake don’t try to be funny. Particularly if you are Gloria de Piero, Labour’s answer to Sarah Teather.
I wish people didn’t call the Conservatives ‘Tories’. I hate the word ‘Tories’ – because it makes us sound like name-calling, pompous jerks. I’ve met people who don’t even realise that when we say Tories we’re talking about the Conservatives. You do not call your enemy by a nickname. You use their own name against them. Heidi Alexander saying Jeremy Hunt like it’s a swearword, that’s how you do it.
I couldn’t find anyone talking about electoral reform. I think that’s because their meetings were all at 8 in the morning and I was trying to avoid Polly Toynbee (particularly first thing in the morning).
The dilemma Labour has in terms of policy right now is whether we should be making policies for the UK as it is now in 2015 or what it will be in 2020. To be fair, I think Lucy Powell is the only member of the shadow cabinet to have grasped that; that in 2020 there will probably be no comprehensives, no Local Education Authorities, and so our policy should be about what we can do then. On the other hand, obviously our policies should be offering an alternative to what the Conservatives are doing now, rather than looking like we have already accepted all the dastardly things they intend for the next half-decade. And while we’re in opposition we should have policies designed to gain support, to recruit new members and enthuse existing ones. But TBH I think most of our policies, like rail and royal mail nationalisation, will be impractical or irrelevant by 2020. And in some meetings, and some speeches, I got the strong sense that these weren’t policies for the future, but policies that the speaker thinks we should have had in May 2015, or May 2010, or even May 1997 (where it all went wrong according to some).
As I said elsewhere, I think one silver lining about Jeremy Corbyn winning is that our leader’s policies are virtually indistinguishable from the Greens (red and green are very similar if you’re colourblind) and this gives us a great opportunity to co-operate with them. If it was down to me we’d field joint candidates, and have electoral pacts – but that would only lead to us getting more MPs so what do I know? The same applies to the Lib Dems. Lisa Nandy, I think, is the only member of the shadow cabinet to have made – not the mental leap, but the mental very-small-hop - towards this point of view.
The other thing I think that could be learned from Jeremy Corbyn is that the left does not have the monopoly on authenticity. I was so impressed to see people on the other wing of the party at the Progress event being themselves and coming across as genuine, witty, passionate, self-effacing, real people. And these are the same people who, for the last five years, have been appearing on current affairs programmes and Question Time doing their best impersonations of a robot. I mean, for a long time I thought Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell were the same woman, many still do. So I think, like Jeremy, that all our MPs could benefit from relaxing a bit, trusting their own opinions, and be themselves. Talk unguardedly like normal people, and say what they believe, not what party policy is, because that is how you get people to like you. That is how you get people to remember who you are. They have a great opportunity here as they no longer have to toe the party line, because our leader is physically incapable of doing it. I think the MPs on the moderate wing of the party have a great opportunity to make it clear that their politics are just as authentic and just as heartfelt as the politics of the left-wing idealists.
I found the reluctance of the people on stage to mention Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and give them credit for their achievements to be deeply pathetic. Even when their achievements were mentioned, they were accredited to the last Labour government, not the Prime Ministers who delivered them. Compare this to endless mentions of Attlee and his 1945 government. Look, I’m sure he did great things, but in terms of people who actually remember him you are literally only talking to people who are in their eighties and nineties. IMHO the only way Labour will ever get back into power will be if we take ownership of the Blair and Brown years and say ‘Yes, they were bloody brilliant, we were bloody fantastic in government, and if you vote for us, that’s what you will get again!’ rather than saying ‘The last time we were in government we were quite rubbish and fucked things up, sorry about that, give us another go.’ People in the UK don’t think that Blair was a bad Prime Minister. On the whole they think he did a good job. And Labour should capitalise on that, not disown it. I realise I am out of tune with a large part of the party on this but they’ll come round, just as the Conservatives very quickly realised that they should stop slagging off the Thatcher years.
But what about my quest, to find out the plan? Well, it wasn’t a resounding success. I was very disappointed by Jonathan Ashworth’s speech on Taking The Fight To The Tories. But on the other hand, I did get a sense of a plan from Heidi Alexander, that Labour should be galvanising the public (not just activists) and Tom Watson, that would should use the power of t’internet. Building a large membership base is a great opportunity (hey, we could stop relying on the unions for funding, wouldn’t that be brilliant?) but it is not an end in itself. We could turn every Labour voter in the last election into a Labour member and we still wouldn’t win the next election.
And I’m not sure calling the Conservatives the nasty party is the way forward. People who voted Conservative tend to take that personally. They are corrupt and incompetent, but they’re not nasty. I mean, did no-one else see the irony of Jeremy Corbyn saying we would have a new, nicer politics – and then have Tom Watson accusing the Conservatives of being ‘nasty’ the following day? Did he not get the memo to end the petty name-calling? What? There was no memo?
Back to my search for the plan. As mentioned, I found some of the stuff said by Lisa Nandy encouraging. Roswyn Turner made it clear we are not trying to win more votes from Labour voters, we have to win votes from people who voted Conservative. Quite a few people made the point that Labour’s way back into government is through the success, efficiency and compassion of Labour councils (which could, ahem, be interpreted as saying that Labour’s way back into government is not through our leader).
But I was most encouraged by Chris Bryant and Lord Falconer who actually both grasped that Labour should not be sitting back and twiddling its arse until 2020. The Conservatives have a tiny majority. For all the ‘we had a terrible defeat’ stuff, they barely scraped in. We can fight them now and defeat them now! We can join forces with the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and Tory rebels and actually stop them! We can fight them in the courts, we can fight them in the Lords! We can and should exploit splits in the Tory party over Europe to our advantage. That’s what we can do. That’s what we should do.
I just wish Jeremy Corbyn felt the same. He doesn’t seem too concerned about it, to be honest. That’s all the stuff he should’ve been saying in his speech, instead of all the stuff about old battles and irrelevant issues. I wasn’t won over by him. I gave him a fair chance, I paid very close attention, but he didn’t convince me. All I could think of was how much more vital the Conference would’ve been had Andy, Yvette or Liz won. Then we’d be talking about the issues that matter to people rather than nuclear disarmament. But, to his credit, he didn’t cock it up. He gave a fine speech which I think his supporters will have adored. I just hope he isn’t giving the same speech next year.
And that’s everything, I think. Including this blog I’ve written over 14,000 words over 6 days – and 4 of those days were 12-hour days spent in conference, so it’s been quite full-on. I don’t think you’ll find a fuller account anywhere else!
I’d just like to end by saying a huge thankyou to John, Xanna, Jasper and Roxy for putting me up (and putting up with me) and Winchester & Chandler’s Ford Labour Party for giving me the opportunity to be their delegate. I found it exhilarating, exhausting and fascinating, which I hope these blogs have gone some way to conveying.