First-time Labour conference delegate’s diary 2021 – Day Four

James McAsh

It’s day four and I’ve learned the routine. The day starts with us pouring over the conference arrangements committee (CAC) report to understand the results from the previous day. All three of Monday’s card votes were contentious. The first was a reference back on the national policy forum (NPF) report on Palestine, criticising the report’s commitment to a two-state solution. This fell, 67% to 33%, essentially maintaining the party’s commitment to a two-state solution. Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) were fairly evenly split on the issue but the unions voted overwhelming against the reference back. The second motion condemned the ‘Aukus’ international agreement between the UK, US and Australian governments. This passed 70% to 30%, with a majority in both the CLP and union sections.

The final vote, on electoral reform, was perhaps the most interesting. It fell by 58% to 42%, but the response from CLPs and unions could not have been more different. In advance of the result coming in, I texted a friend with my prediction: “overwhelming support in the CLPs, and a blood bath in the unions”. I was proven right. 80% of CLPs delegates, representing Labour members, supported the motion whereas 95% of union delegates rejected it.

The Labour for a New Democracy campaign blames Keir Starmer, saying that if the leadership had “engaged with this unifying policy as intensively as they pushed their own proposed rule changes, PR would now be Labour policy”. This is no doubt true. But it’s also true that the unions have their own democratic processes, and these often move slowly. For instance, when I asked one Unite delegate on the way into the conference how she would vote, the answer was simple: Unite has policy against electoral reform.

The campaign for Labour to support proportional representation has really picked up in the last year, but Unite’s last policy conference was in 2019. The union’s newly-elected general secretary, Sharon Graham, supports electoral reform, and so do other big hitters like Howard Beckett, so it is not at all inconceivable that the union’s position could change. All the big unions voted against the motion but only GMB spoke against it. It does not feel like the others are hugely committed to first-past-the-post, and only one would have needed to vote in favour for the motion to have passed. Watch this space: I fully expect the motion to come back to conference soon.

The morning was spent on education and then health and social care. No education motions had been prioritised so a motion on the Right to Food was scheduled during this section. The health and social care section included debates on the NHS, social care, public services, mental health and LGBT+ rights. The delegate moving the last of these was a trans woman. She said that she had faced transphobic harassment in a conference centre bathroom just the day before. “Transphobia is alive and well in the Labour Party.” Despite this often being seen as a contentious topic, it was passed overwhelmingly alongside all the other motions. None of the results were close enough to be put to a card vote.

There were more fireworks in the afternoon session. This was the ‘justice and home affairs’ section and included motions on violence against women and girls, immigration and asylum policy and Black Lives Matters. There were moving contributions regarding the murder of Sabina Nessa and the racism faced by so many workers. One delegate spoke about the plight of imprisoned pregnant women, telling us a tragic story of one who gave birth alone and whose baby died shortly after. Another delegate waded into the debate over sex and gender, declaring that “sex matters”. When she asserted “I stand with Rosie Duffield”, she was met with both applause and heckling. A particularly powerful opening was when one delegate introduced herself before saying “I’ve started with a lie, I don’t know my real surname, it was stolen from my ancestors by slavers”. A touching moment was when a delegate brought her baby up to the lectern for her speech, and the baby led the conference in a round of applause.

Perhaps the most shocking speeches were about an issue close to hand. Two speakers told us about the case of Apsana Begum, MP for Poplar and Limehouse. They said a few years ago she had fled domestic abuse from her ex-husband and found a new council home, but her ex-husband was a Labour councillor and he was well-connected. His family complained that she had committed housing fraud and the council spent tens of thousands pursuing her through the courts before she was eventually cleared of housing fraud. Both speeches were met with enormous standing ovations.

The final section of the day was on the economy and work and pensions. We debated motions on industrial strategy, fire and rehire, and the mineworkers pension scheme. None were remotely contentious but there were some fiery speeches. A number of delegates called for a £15 an hour minimum wage, in reference to Andy McDonald’s resignation the day before, and others expressed their solidarity with the Bakers’ Union who had just announced their disaffiliation from the party. These received enormous standing ovations from the floor. 

As all of this was ongoing, I was reminded of a press headline the day before: “Sir Keir Starmer gives Labour MPs their party back”. There have been disagreements on conference floor. But many questions have been decided by near-consensus, with more than 90% of delegates voting the same way. This was the case with the motion that called for public ownership of energy companies and it was the same for motion in solidarity with Palestine. And yet both of these were directly refuted by shadow cabinet members in the press within less than 24 hours: Lisa Nandy on Palestine and Rachel Reeves on public ownership. It struck me that the biggest divide in the Labour Party is not between left and right or between members and unions. The biggest tension is between the movement that is meant to set our political direction, and the parliamentarians who refuse to follow it.

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