Local member Martin Spence is just back from four frantic days at Labour Party Conference in Brighton (just as a visitor, not a delegate). Here he shares his impressions of the event:
Hello from Penge East!
I arrived in the conference hall some time on Sunday afternoon to find a strangely familiar face up on the big screen. It was Mick, our very own ticket-office guy at Penge East Station, part of the TSSA union delegation, speaking from the rostrum. How nice to be greeted by a familiar Penge face.
A bit mad…
How to describe the overall Conference atmosphere? Friendly; somewhere on the spectrum between over-excited and chaotic; a bit mad. All of which is understandable given the Party’s extraordinary come-back in the Election. In addition to being a policy-making Conference this was, in effect, a slightly delayed four-day-long celebration party.
The febrile atmosphere was also fed by the decision to minimise set-piece speeches from MPs and maximise contributions from delegates. This led to an energetic bidding-war between rival delegates desperate to catch the Chair’s eye and have their moment of glory. Having a gimmick helped. One bloke got himself called up by waving a police helmet: he turned out to be the Police Commissioner for Nottingham. Others resorted to cuddly toys. “I’ll take you with the Red Lion!” called the Chair. Then: “Oh sorry, I’ve just been told it’s a Red Dragon”.
A decent bunch
I got along to a fair few fringe meetings, which varied in quality. More interesting at a personal level was a focus group which I’d been invited to attend, to talk about fundraising and Labour Party finances. I didn’t know any of the other participants, but they were all lovely people, and for an hour and a half we had a really good, practical discussion. We all agreed, for instance, that too many emails, begging for money, quickly become counter-productive. But no-one was moaning, and the mood in the room was positive and generous. I went away thinking what a decent bunch of people the Labour Party is. It cheered me up for the rest of the day.
Back in the Conference hall, the speechifying inevitably ranged from the inspirational to the delusional. There were speeches which were passionate and well-crafted, and speeches which were frankly embarrassing. And there were some which were genuinely very funny.
For instance: Carwyn Jones, Labour’s First Minister in the Welsh Assembly, did a great riff on Teresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence, the city of Dante (seriously: how many Tories would know that?). Having made this connection, off Carwyn went, casting Brexit as a ghastly re-enactment of the Divine Comedy, with preliminary Article 50 negotiations as the First Circle of Hell, from which May and her buddies seem unable to escape.
Others had a more earnest style. Keir Starmer – in great demand at the countless Brexit-related fringe meetings – is positively Cromwellian in his demeanour. But I think that’s what we need from the bloke who is leading for us on such a crucial question. Brexit is by far the biggest issue facing the country, and was the biggest issue faced by Conference, and the gutless decision to deny Conference a vote on Brexit could have done us real damage. But with Starmer there as a voice of cool reason, that damage was minimised.
Oooooh Jeremy Corrr-byn!!
It’s a long time since I was at school, so a long time since I ‘broke up’ at the end of term, but Wednesday, the final day of Conference, had that sort of feeling. There was really only substantial piece of business: Jeremy’s Speech.
As a visitor, I had to go into a ballot months ago if I wanted a seat at this particular show, so I did, and (along with several thousand others) I won! I got there early to claim my prize and grabbed a prime front-row place in the balcony. I started chatting to my neighbour, only to find she was from Lewisham Deptford, just up the road, so we spent a happy hour comparing notes on everything from Croydon (better than it’s cracked up to be) to choirs (one of humanity’s great creations). This last was inspired by the Rainbow Choir who entertained us while we were waiting for Jeremy; and by the distribution of song-sheets for the roof-lifting rendition of ‘The Red Flag’ and ‘Jerusalem’ with which the Conference ended. Bloody great.
But before we got to the singing, we had Jeremy, greeted of course by the now compulsory Glastonbury Chant: Oooooh Jeremy Corrr-byn! It was a good performance, and he was clearly enjoying every moment, as he was entitled to do. I won’t try to summarise his speech – it’s already been done to death by the journalists. Let’s just say it was classic Corbyn: strong socialist stuff, offering endless hostages to fortune, because that’s the man’s style. He didn’t get where he is today by playing a cautious percentage game. And where is he today? Well, he thinks he’s Prime Minister in waiting, and I think he may be right.