An honest assessment of Labour’s Annual Conference would be that it was purposeful and steady. It didn’t dramatically improve our position (we remain steady on 6% ahead in the polls according to YouGov) but unlike Labour conferences in the early years of our previous periods in opposition the conference did us no damage either. I’ll settle for that given the infighting and disunity that characterised Labour after all its previous defeats – we have learnt from that and not formed a proverbial circular firing squad.
My overall impression both from what happened on conference floor and the chatter in the bars and on the fringe was of a great degree of unity and a fairly commonsense effort to develop a new policy agenda.
It was the first conference I have attended (and I’ve been to 17 of them) without serious briefing of the media against the leader. This is remarkable given the sniping against Ed six months ago and perhaps means the week of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal was the key game-changing one, rather than conference week.
Ed’s speech, like the conference as a whole, was not a game-changer, but I think he took the hall with him and helped consolidate the view of the party rank-and-file that they have a bright and personable young leader that they can unite behind. I was genuinely impressed by the intellectual content of the speech. As something of a traditionalist Labour moderate I had been struggling to work out what our agenda for government would look like in an era where we can’t expand public spending, and Ed’s blueprint of focusing on enabling private sector economic growth and looking to change the ethics and rules of our society and economy to fairer ones that reward good behaviour seems a coherent vision for how we can be radical without spending our way to progress.
Accusations that he was signalling a move to the left or being anti-business were, I felt spurious, given that he announced we would reduce the deficit if the coalition had failed to do it by 2015, and that he spent much of the speech on his vision for industry and manufacturing and name-checked a number of major engineering companies. Delegates seemed to leave the hall with a respect and affection for him that wasn’t universally there immediately after the leadership election.
The one episode during the speech that left a bad taste was when a small minority of delegates, or perhaps visitors, booed Tony Blair’s name when it was mentioned. This presented a gift to the Tories as it helps them falsely claim Labour is moving leftwards, and it was divisive and alienating for other people in the hall, quite aside from being churlish, uncomradely and bad manners. We really need to start showing some respect for all our former leaders, particularly if they are ones who won three general elections. We cannot afford to keep refighting past disagreements, whether over policy or still less personality.
Immediately before the conference there had been some possibility of a bust-up between the leadership and the unions over aspects of the Refounding Labour proposals. It says much for the maturity of everyone involved, and the great desire in the party for unity, that a consensus was reached on the issue of the new registered supporters network, which will now get a share in the leadership electoral college of between 3 and 10% once 50,000 supporters have been registered, to come equally from the existing three sections (MPs, Affiliates and individual party members), with a mechanism built in to ensure each member’s vote is always worth more than a supporter’s.
As an NEC member I had a vote at the NEC meeting on the Saturday of conference on the Refounding Labour package as a whole. I am proud to have voted in favour. There will be individual aspects people are not happy with but on the whole I think it is a very positive package of reforms that will help revitalise the party at a grassroots level. The focus now needs to be on implementation – in particular on ensuring that weaker constituencies are helped to use the new services like access to contact creator and a paid-for conference delegate being provided to them, so they can enhance both their campaigning and their involvement in our internal democracy. We also need to go out and use the registered supporters’ scheme as a tool for bringing people into a closer association with Labour as a first step to membership and activism.
A highlight of conference for me was Iain McNicol’s inspiring speech as the new General Secretary – he will have the tough job of making sure that the Refounding Labour proposals live up in reality to the promise on paper.
There was understandable discontent about the consultation process on Refounding Labour which manifested itself on conference floor with procedural votes at the start of conference. In retrospect there should have been a two-stage consultation, with a deadline at the end of July for a draft set of proposals to be agreed and circulated to CLPs. That there wasn’t reflects a perennial issue of how we marry the culture of the constituency parties where members expect to be consulted on drafts and time is needed to do this, with that of the union affiliates where senior figures prefer to negotiate privately on the basis of mandates from their own political structures. As a strong supporter of the benefits of the union link I don’t have an easy answer to that conundrum.
I personally had a very busy conference. As well as attending three NEC meetings, I
– Had the honour of chairing the whole of the Monday afternoon session of conference
– Chaired the councillors’ Q&A on conference floor on the final day
– Chaired the Progress fringe meeting on campaigning where the Greens are the main local opposition
– Was a “dragon” at the Fabians’ “Dragon’s Den” responding to pitchers’ policy ideas
– Spoke at the Labourlist fringe meeting on Refounding Labour
– Spoke against primary elections for selecting Labour’s candidates at a fringe meeting on this organised by Progress
It was also good to meet many CLP delegates and officers who I have spoken to online or who read these reports but whom I had not previously met in person.
At the NEC AGM on Wednesday night we paid tribute to a number of colleagues leaving the NEC. I particularly wanted to mention Norma Stephenson, Chair of the NEC, and Cath Speight, Chair of the Organisation Committee. Both of them come from the trade union section of the NEC and have made a huge contribution to the smooth running of the Party over more than a decade, without seeking personal publicity. They will be sorely missed as will out-going General Secretary Ray Collins, but I hope all those leaving will continue to play an important role in the party.