#lab12 conference diary

#lab12 Despite being a member of the Labour Party for 38 years, I have never been to conference before; I have just returned from Manchester, where I attended for 2½ days. It was rather fun, jolly useful and thanks to some of the people I met, inspiring.

I got there late-ish on Sunday and met up with my comrades from Lewisham Deptford CLP, including @vickyfoxcroft, @joe_dromey, @joeperryuk, @mjrharris and @Len_Duvall in a bar near the conference centre. I had been disappointed that the conference and fringe running order had not been sent to me until after I bought my train ticket. This meant I missed part one of the shenanigans and the debate on “Refounding Labour” which I had wanted to attend. After the Lewisham meetup, I moved on to the New Statesman party. I think as a subscriber, I should have had an invite, I didn’t, but anyway, I got in OK. I met up with one of their staff, and expressed my views that I didn’t want to pay to read Dan Hodges and could they stop publishing his stuff. I was advised to write to the Editor, Jason Cowley, with that view, but I can’t find his email or twitter handle! Poor show!

I got up late on Monday and so missed part two of the shenanigans.

I wandered around the exhibition and stopped at the Boating Alliance stand. I wondered why they were there; they explained that it was a long term lobbying operation and that one of their biggest concerns was that the Regional Development Organisations had a large waterfront landbank, essential for their membership’s economic development which was trapped in limbo by the Tory led government’s decision to abolish these organisations. (I assume that this is a BIS decision, led by the once-a-year Keynesian, failed monopoly regulator, and erstwhile leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable.)

I spent an hour or so listening to the Economic Policy debate. A number of very good speeches often delivered by people clearly not used to public speaking, and excited to be addressing Labour Party Conference. It’s good to be attracting new people to politics. It’s also one of the most diverse conferences I have ever been to. This is helped in some part by the delegate term limitation rules, a CLP may not send anyone two years running to represent them.

I shared a lunch table with some elected councillor’s from Bury. We discussed council systems, I hadn’t realised that Manchester has no regional council; there seemed some attraction to having a system like London’s; as regular, or obsessive readers, if I have any, will know, I don’t think it’s a good idea particularly at the lower tier of local government. The idea that investing in a single person is the best way to take all these decisions is laughable, and the weakness of the control mechanisms in London and the other executive mayoralties turns the councillors into elected case workers; they have little else to do. I had bumped into Val Shawcross AM and encouraged her in developing an effective broad, multi issue opposition in the Assembly to the Mayor of London to try and change some of this. The size of the mandate makes true conversations between the elected and the electorate almost impossible. It’s possible to know large numbers of voters in a council ward, and the best MPs know large numbers of their voters. This personal contact is weakened, if not destroyed by larger mandates such as borough wide or metropolis wide executive mayors or the proposed but now dead super-constituencies. It was designed to weaken Parties, it has the exact opposite effect, reinforced by the fact that only Parties with an expectation that this will help them win and exercise power support the transitions.

Before the next fringe meeting, I bought a copy of Labour Briefing, a magazine with the headline, March! Strike! Fight! I’m nowhere near finished reading it yet but they have an article, called “The Rising Cost of the Right to Buy”, a trailer for a longer article, Unintended consequences: Local Housing Allowance
meets the Right to Buy by Sprigings & Smith. It explores the way that the sold off social housing has entered the private rented sector, and what started as a bribe to council tenants, now becomes a gift to landlords, exacerbated by Housing Benefit. The ex-council stock becomes private rented accommodation at rates several times higher than what the councils would have charged. Most Labour Councillors will have stories that substantiate this. We need to build more houses; a proposal that Ed Balls committed the next Labour Government to doing.

I then went to a fringe meeting organised by the Open Rights Group, Index on Censorship and Big Brother Watch. The meeting was on the Communications Data Bill (I say more here…). MPs Stella Creasy & Katy Clark also attended and spoke. Katy spoke about the historic fight to ensure that this sort of intrusion and surveillance was subject to a warrant and judicial review. She sees no reason to give up these protections today. Stella was concerned about if this is feasible, whether its future proof and its cost. (£2bn). She is also very sceptical, given her experience on the Public Accounts Committee that a government project of this size and complexity could be brought in to time, quality and budget. Two billion quid is a lot of money, the Educational Maintenance Allowance was £560m p.a.. Good meeting! Thanks to Jim, Nick and Mike for organising it, and to Katy and Stella for attending.

I moved onto the reception of the European Parliamentary Party. The British politicians I wanted to meet weren’t present by the time I got there. I wanted to thank David Martin MEP for his work on ensuring that ACTA was defeated, and to Claude Moraes about why he’s not answering my emails. Even Michael Cashman replied to me over ACTA. (The Tory I wrote to didn’t). I did meet and speak with Joao Assuncao Ribeiro, the International Secretary of the Portuguese Socialist Party (Partido Socialista), who among other things pointed out to me that the election/appointment of the President of the Commission is now dependent on the results of the election to the European Parliament. The European Parties will run across Europe with a candidate for President of the Commission as did the Greens last time. (See what Wikipedia has to say here….).

On Tuesday, I got up late and missed part three of the shenanigans. It’s a long time since I have seen, or in this case missed this sort of conference crudity; it’s usually pointless since the membership view will prevail in the end, although I am not sure that the Labour Party is capable of defending itself against this abuse any more. However, those it makes angry will just redouble their efforts.

Tuesday was dominated by Ed Miliband’s Leader’s Speech. Much has been written about it in amongst others the Guardian, the New Statesmanthe BBC and best of all in my opinion, Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy, calling it the best speech of his life. I shan’t add to it much, but a good speech, the comments about ease are true. It’s pretty policy light, but others are saying things; I was brought back to earth when talking to one comrade, who thought it was empty and wanted to know where the re-nationalisations were. He feels we should re-nationalise the railways, gas, electricity and water; I suspect it’s more than just him in the Labour Party who agree. Odd that the following day, the Government announce a halt to the franchise sales for the Railway.

After the formal conference sessions, I attended a fringe panel discussion about the EU entitled “There’s a problem with Brussels”. This was attended by Glynis Wilmott MEP, Stuart Wood (Lord Wood of Anfield), Rafael Behr of the New Statesman and Austin Mitchell MP. Austin Mitchell represented the Labour Euro-Safeguard Committee. I was fascinated by the nuance and knowledge of the speakers. Two takeaways from the meeting,

  1. the majority think Cameron has his knackers in a vice; they can’t see how he can go to the country with a No2Europe line. They predict that he’ll be looking for a re-negotiation mandate but that it’s not possible to design one that doesn’t require two referenda, his party won’t let him and certainly won’t agree that he has achieved a successful renegotiation of terms, and the rest of Europe will give him nothing. (That’s what you get from crossing Angela Merkel, the most sectarian right winger in Europe, Dave!)
  2. The weight of the panel (Austin Mitchell had to leave early) also thought that both the Labour Party and the country would vote to stay in, particularly on an “In or Out” vote. It’s important to remember what the Tories mean when they talk about repatriation of powers. They want to abolish what limited labour protection laws we have left. We have amongst the weakest in Europe and defending workers rights, together with opposing austerity should be the centre piece of Labour’s campaign in 2014. As Joao Riberia (see above) pointed out, Labour and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats will also run with a candidate for President of the Commission; it’s important to maximise the votes for Labour in the UK, to ensure that the next Commission is Left led.

The meeting finished with a question from me, about how to obtain a Left led Europe when the bulk of Eastern Europe have none or very weak democratic left parties. Rafael Behr reinforced my point by talking about his experience in the Baltic states and contrasting the anti-Soviet, anti-Russian politics of these Eastern European states and peoples with the fashionable communist chic displayed by some, albeit a tiny minority of delegates and attendees. I spoke to Rafael and told him that I had finally got the sense that most of Eastern Europe considered the “Socialist” experiment to be an occupation when visiting Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary. I bought the guide book which describes the national debate and the symbolism of the path that never ends and the red wall at the end of the road, together with the statue and history of of Stalin’s boots. I did let myself down as apart from the guide book which is a must, my souvenirs consist of fridge magnets with the badges of the Communist Parties of Hungary and the Soviet Union. Today, the competition for political leadership in Eastern Europe seems to be between Liberal Capitalists or Ultra-Right Nationalists with a couple of ex-Communist parties hanging in as an opposition and in one or two cases as the Government. The democratic left needs to do better.

I spent my last morning in meetings, hence missing ED Miliband’s Q&A session and the remaining debates.

Over the three days I spent in Manchester, I also reconnected with new and old friends in the Labour Party and Trade Union movement, who inspired me to continue my campaigning. Thanks for that. I’d also like to thank those people of Manchester who helped make my stay as enjoyable as it was.

The downside? Travelodge, you really need to offer safes, your wifi prices are outrageous and not having a bag repository spoilt my last day. Priority Pass, you need to diversify to train station lounges; I have down graded my membership this year as I am not flying so much but use of the Eurostar, Virgin and other Lounges (at train stations) would be good.

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