Those who said Labour couldn’t organise a party in a brewery were wrong. The consensus is that a feel-good factor was abroad: this was the most cohesive conference in years. Any discussion of division was diverted like a delegate with no ticket. Labour were too busy forming a government. And you’d better believe it!
Labour Party conference 2022
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of others in my Constituency Labour Party (CLP); nor are they intended to represent the position of Folkestone and Hythe CLP.
The Folkestone CLP strapline says: “Hope is worth fighting for!” Sir Keir Starmer’s words at the Labour conference subconsciously borrowed from this belief:
Hope turns to belief!
“A hope of a Labour government has turned into a belief of a Labour government.”Keir Starmer
The post-conference celebrations, media reaction and Labour lead in the polls, all affirm this.
But if a week is a long time in politics, it has to be said that September was a very long month. Jettisoning Boris Johnson, Liz Truss for PM; new team for a new term. Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget ramping up the cost-of-living crisis. The House of Truss could fall as early as next week.
Did Starmer just get lucky? Will conference ‘buzz’ land Labour votes? Where next for Labour?
Radical policies emerged, wrong-footing those who expected a timid approach this far out from an election. Green energy; public ownership; transforming transport; housing targets and more. Alongside this, patriotism made Labour sound safe: God save the King, national security first.
So, all good, then? Yes, and no. Inevitably, there’s unfinished business. Policies need fleshing out with a reality check. To dismiss the crisis the country finds itself in would be careless; a point put to the Labour leader hours after the conference, with no easy answers.
There is also still some of that socialism stuff brushed under the carpet; but to put obstacles in the way of the change our country needs would be reckless.
Reviews are pretty good!
Here’s what a perceptive friend – who came back converted, but clear-headed – had to say:
“Conference performed. It was almost immaculate.
I left feeling I knew where we were going. All speakers, all policy announcements were talking about collaborative working with business, science and research, technology, local government, unions, community groups and charities to make Britain a ‘better fairer and greener’ country for everybody. The welfare of planet and people were paramount. Those ideas chime with my own ideas.”
The big picture is that we need a Labour government after the ‘Dirty Dozen’ years. Twelve years of cruel conservatism hit a new low with the anointing of Truss and the barbaric budget of Kwarteng.
Bold policy proposals
In response, we heard the clarion call of bold policies setting out Labour’s ambition in government to address both the immediate crisis and long-term rebuilding of a better Britain.
- Bridget Phillipson proposed action on food poverty with breakfast for all primary children;
- Wes Streeting offered a defibrillator for near terminal healthcare;
- The proposal to nationalise railways;
- Lisa Nandy referencing public ownership and cooperative models were astutely tuned into public rejection of profiteering; and
- Ed Miliband fired up conference on a green, new deal economy.
The most populist was the keynote speech by Starmer: a patently powerful approach to ‘ownership’ of energy. Millions are paying for gas and electricity running wild, with sponsorship of shareholders on the public purse adding insult to injury.
My conference chum still added a notable rider to her views:
“Despite coming away from Conference excited by the idea that my party has a proper plan, the issues about democracy in the party remain. I see parallels between the Tory party and ourselves. If you disagree with the leadership, you get expelled. At Conference, it was said that the Labour Party is a “broad church” and yet we were also told that we are a party of the centre. A broad church welcomes the views of anyone, as long as they are not offensive in any way. Maybe the term “politically correct” has a much narrower meaning for the Labour Party of today.”
She has a point. On the opening day, a brief note acknowledged the consummately balanced findings of the Forde Report, which looked at the health of the Labour Party and indicated a need to bottom out our differences and work together. Unfinished business.
There was careful suppression of controversy; this was outward-looking Labour with no time for navel-gazing socialists. Those with the ear of leadership boasted of ‘winning’ the ballot for motions ahead of CLP issues. There was a strident sense of self-satisfaction, a sense that maybe our membership matters less than our media.
Let’s get the show on the road!
I expected this would be a well-staged, positive event, sort of like a trade fair announcing new products in the industry. It would work hard, sell well, sound über-confident, on-message and do lots of positive media. It did what it said on the tin.
The issues for our CLP (before and after the national crisis) echo those set out at conference.
- Cost-of-living crisis
- Food poverty
- Housing insecurity
- Access to transport
- Health inequalities and inefficiencies
- Economic and employment uncertainty
- Environment and quality of life degradation
I’m proud our CLP consistently seeks to act on socialist principles: the need for social justice, equalities, workers’ rights, international human rights and civil liberties, inclusion; an economy which provides the means for all; supporting future generations to fulfil potential.
Does this democracy stuff matter to us? Yes. We’ve seen a critical erosion of our civil liberties. A party that claims moral high ground must demonstrate the highest standards of behaviour and an ability to mimic the forgiveness and reconciliation of Mandela’s Long March to Freedom.
If that sounds far-fetched, we need to reach far, to reach out; the country needs an antidote to austerity and aftermath government. Ending division starts at home.
Many friends who serve Labour at local level have not been well served by the party in return. While Labour regenerated post-Corbyn, finding the next Dr Who turns out to be quite a nice guy, many ordinary Labour earthlings have been exterminated simply for discussing Dalekism.
The disruption to grassroots capacity from the ‘long night of the long knives’ – thought police rooting out dissent, it often seems – is hard to exaggerate. Party communication must improve. Simple stuff, like meeting as a regional collective from time to time are hard to arrange; efforts to promote shared vision or a visible presence outside the ‘bubble’ need to be stepped up.
CLPs receive draconian party messages followed by long silences: “Don’t mention the war!” or more precisely, “Don’t use the C-word (Corbyn). Ever.” “Don’t discuss anti-semitism, ever.” Meanwhile, trade unions stepped up to challenge the government and rogue employers, outpacing their partners in Labour.
Enough is Enough has found the ear of working people as hardship spreads like Covid, whereas the Labour internal narrative has been about control not consensus, politics not policy or picket lines. If we exclude legitimate debate, something is amiss.
My feeling is that the top-down model – which seems to be favoured by Labour in opposition – should be tempered if we want to avoid imitating the Tories’ disdain for dissent in government.
Labour needs to get members onside, helping work towards the victory now within easy reach.
Post-conference, members might expect the messaged equivalent of a warm embrace and a resume of progress, policy and practical action: we’re still waiting.
Clearly not everybody agrees about all this peripheral stuff. One delegate said to me this weekend, “I don’t care, as long as we get a Labour government”.
Apathy, Anger and Action…
We face a national crisis of epic proportions: economic, social and community fragmentation. The victory in sight may be a poisoned chalice, making it harder to implement the policies announced with a flourish last week. Incoming ministers may find a Tory riposte to Liam Byrne’s infamous note about the money running out. All that’s for later.
Our national psyche is currently polarised on a line that runs from apathy to anger. Somewhere along that line lies action and activism: neither far end provides solutions for our societal crisis.
Friends of all persuasions are depoliticised, demotivated by despair, exasperated and exhausted. They have almost given up on any hope of a future which offers hope. Labour’s job is not only to oppose and finish off this ghastly government, but to reach out and engage those who are disaffected, isolated – advocating hope, belief – and active social participation. We need it.
I believe the call by a previous leader for ‘kinder politics’ should still be heeded.
Leadership is about unleashing the power of the people, it’s not about a power struggle.
This season should herald a healing process for the country and for Labour itself.
Next year could well be a conference for Labour in government.
Here’s to believing.
Jon O’Connor is a Labour Party member with a public service background. He belongs to Folkestone Labour party.