On the second day of conference, I’ve been brave enough to realise I can leave the hall. With that in mind, after great evening events like LabourList’s Rally and the London Labour reception, I was up bright and early to go to Christians on the Left’s morning service. This is the great thing about conference: likeminded people from across the country come together, so you can network and even worship together. With a sermon from Jeremy Corbyn, I felt refreshed, reminded that I’m a socialist because of my beliefs.
The other thing I learnt was to stock up on food beforehand, because the food in the centre is expensive and not very filling. With my meal deal and some snacks in my bag, I headed back to the centre. In the conference hall, within a minute I’d heard calls to abolish Eton. Conference is undoubtedly an echo chamber, but it is obviously empowering to be in such a big assembly of socialists, regardless.
We heard motions on both social care and the NHS, before taking contributions from the floor on both. This was unclear, meaning that a friend of mine did not attempt to contribute when she had wanted to. There were also two different composited motions on the NHS, which overlapped considerably. It was not clear how the vote would be taken.
Then, there was discussion of the references back from the National Policy Forum report. This was essentially asking them to think again about certain points within this. Again, with two documents to cross-reference – the report and the references back – people didn’t know what they were referring to. This led to two points of order, as many people hadn’t brought their NPF reports with them. I’m not sure how this could have been done better, but it certainly led to a lot of anger.
A second problem had a much simpler solution: the chair refused to summarise the subjects of the references. A single sentence would have helped with this, but she argued that it had been discussed at the beginning of the day. I hadn’t been there, and even those who had been couldn’t remember after the long discussion. Because of this, a cry came up from the conference floor and another point of order was raised, causing votes to be delayed until the next session.
That gave me a chance to experience the brilliant array of fringe events. While scoffing a hoisin duck wrap and downing a bottle of Fanta, I heard Young Labour’s panels on a Green New Deal and modern internationalism, and popped down to see John McDonnell in a panel by the No 3rd Runway Coalition. This year, a lot of panels are being tenuously connected to the environment, which is great for me as it’s something I’m particularly interested in. But I soon realised that checking the organiser’s name was just as important as the event name, as lots of them seem to be more about pedagogy than debate.
After lunch, I heard a great speech from Diane Abbott, a hero of mine. With a promise to close Yarl’s Wood, and touching mentions of her mum, it raised spirits in the room and people from their seats.
A motion on the rights of migrant women to maternity care followed, before more referencing back. Both of these references were talking about exclusions rather than inclusions which meant that, when asked which section they were referring to, they had no answer. Eventually, they decided to reference the whole document.
Half-way through the ensuing debate, the chair casually mentioned that there was an ongoing vote on the Democracy Review proposals. This caused a mass exodus, as the vote closed in 40 minutes. After a long queue, we got into the small voting chamber to discover that this was voted on per CLP, meaning that we gathered around the crowded room to discuss our votes, which were simple binary choices based on long documents. Again, this seemed an odd way to discuss changes like the regulation of the behaviour of an acting leader.
Returning to the debate, my friend finally managed to speak – we’d been told to stay seated, but she had struggled to be seen. She finally chose to ignore this rule, and managed to speak. After this, we had another point of order, because people had no idea when the votes from the morning would be retaken. Although it seemed to be going better, it wouldn’t be conference without confusion.
At this point, I had to go for a wander, because I’d been sitting for far too long. Returning during Richard Burgon’s speech, I heard that Labour would bring all PFI prisons back in-house, before having the chance to vote on some great motions, including a motion calling for rights for pregnant migrant women, which passed unanimously.
Next, the references back were, themselves, referred back to the delegates! It was announced that they would be summarised on the screen, which pleased the delegates. This moment didn’t last long, because it turned out that we were only seeing a section of the NPF report, not the reasons for the reference. This provoked various points of order that were basically identical. It struck me that this could all be sorted if we simply voted immediately after each reference was discussed.
Following on from this, when we finally got round to voting, every vote provoked calls for a card vote: the hand vote seemed to be in favour of referencing back, but was called against because the unions voted unanimously against. It was only after multiple lengthy votes that we were informed that votes were not counted based on one-delegate-one-vote, but instead with ratios based on the membership sizes of CLPs and unions. When this was understood, more points of order were raised complaining. “CLP delegates might as well go to the pub,” said one.
It is frustrating, as unions generally don’t support referencing back, so references back will almost always fall. Eventually, all of these were referred to a card vote to stop people complaining, as many still didn’t understand the system. This slowed down the whole system further, turning a ten-minute vote into one which took almost an hour and a half.
If none of this made sense, don’t worry: you’ve just had an authentic conference experience, because it didn’t make sense here either!
So, in short, my optimism in the middle of the day that things might be bedding in was premature. By the time I left the conference hall (an hour later than expected), I was pretty frustrated – both with the system and other delegates. Let’s hope that this evening’s events have enough free food and drink to make me forget it!