Overall the mood was positive, optimistic and united. There are still debates to be had over policy and priorities but the personal rancour and the factional whispering had gone, and while there was applause for John Prescott, and for references to Tony Blair, it was solid rather than hysterical. Last year the general secretary of UNISON was cut off at the microphone; this year, it was the general secretary of the Labour party who postponed his speech because the session over-ran. And by the end of the week the momentum for an autumn election seemed unstoppable.
The role of the NEC at conference has steadily diminished even in the seven years since I was elected, and with acceptance of Gordon Brown’s proposals there will be no more pre-dawn showdowns, knife-edge votes or frantic lobbying by party fixers and union delegates. We met Sunday lunchtime to agree a final version of the party renewal document, and to alter two of our decisions from the preceding Tuesday: dropping the addition of four national policy forum members to the conference arrangements committee (CAC), and asking constituencies to remit their amendment barring ministers from CAC membership. Pete Willsman drew attention to the NEC’s standing orders, which say that resolutions cannot be reversed within three months. He was over-ruled by Mike Griffiths from the chair, who pointed out that as Pete had previously argued against enlarging the CAC, he should be pleased. It was suggested that we might change our standing orders to avoid such problems recurring.
I asked that future consultations, on organisation or on policy, should (a) send copies directly to constituencies (b) at a time when they usually meet, not in August (c) encourage collective as well as individual replies (d) allow those without internet access to participate (e) ask questions which relate to the recommendations (f) publish the responses (g) involve representatives of all sections of the party, not just the unions, in negotiations (h) give us longer than five minutes to read the results (i) allow the NEC, and conference, to vote on recommendations separately. We shall see.
The system will be reviewed in two years, and the NEC agreed to ask the movers of this year’s contemporary resolutions to refer them to the new process as if it was already in place, to give more time to judge its effectiveness. This seemed reasonable to me. Walter Wolfgang expressed concern that almost all motions on foreign policy had been ruled out of order, but was told that decisions were made by the independent CAC and could be challenged by delegates. (Though actually they can’t, because by the time conference starts, the ballot on which topics will be debated has already opened.) Several members were unhappy that the women’s reception was advertised in the daily guide as “Something for the Ladies” on a patronising pink background.
The prime minister then arrived, and stressed again that people did not vote to thank us for what we had done, but for what we would do. The conference would show Labour not only as competent in dealing with crises, but as the party with a vision for the future of the country. He also told us that this year’s international speaker would not be a superstar but an ordinary woman from war-torn Darfur, marking another change of tone from the Blair era.
On Sunday afternoon party renewal reached the conference floor. Many of the same promises were made ten years ago with Partnership in Power: giving every member a say, encouraging local forums, involving the community. No rule changes were needed to give feedback, rescue submissions from the black hole into which they vanish, sharpen up what Ed Miliband described as “long and boring documents”, allow representatives to talk to constituencies, or provide more resources. Most of those called to speak were happy to forgo contemporary motions, and no-one opposed all-member ballots on the manifesto, though this may now be for the election after next. I wondered about the delegate who predicted that conference 2017 would see Gordon Brown celebrating 20 years of Labour government, membership 400,000 and rising, and every speaker praising the changes we had the courage to make today. He showed either extraordinary foresight or over-indulgence in mind-altering substances. But the mood for unity was palpable and the rule changes were carried by 84.5% to 15.5%, with constituencies 87.07% for, 12.93% against, and affiliates 81.03% for, 18.07% against (amid rumours that some union votes were accidentally cast the wrong way).
By Monday morning the NEC had the text of most contemporary resolutions, though the wording on Remploy was still being finalised and the unions stressed that the threat of factory closures made discussion urgent. (Peter Hain later gave satisfactory assurances.) We formalised our decision to take no view on the contents but to feed them all into the new system. We also put forward a rule change from the black socialist society (BSS) giving constituency ethnic minorities officers higher status.
And that was it, until Wednesday evening when we thanked retiring members Dave Ward, Keith Sonnet, Hazel Blears and Ian McCartney and welcomed new representatives Andy Kerr and Keith Birch. Mike Griffiths ended an eventful year as Chair with tributes from Gordon Brown and others, and I am sure that Dianne Hayter, elected unanimously for the year ahead, will be an excellent successor, assisted by Sally Powell as vice-chair. The only item of business was to approve a pilot scheme allowing members under 27 to join for £1 in their first year, as long as they complete a direct debit form for the normal rate in subsequent years.
Conference: Public and Private
The main sessions ran smoothly, with Gordon Brown gaining well-deserved applause. Quentin Davies MP gave a blistering denunciation of his former leader David Cameron and won a standing ovation. And I apologise for winding up supporters of a referendum on the European Union treaty, but must award the prize for metaphor of the week to Gary Titley MEP, who argued that most opponents of the treaty are neo-conservatives who hate Europe itself and its protection for workers:
“And yet, there are those on the left who have allied themselves with the neo-cons. Like the male black widow spider they will only be gobbled up when their usefulness is over.”
All resolutions were duly referred without a vote, and as a member of the crime, justice, citizenship and equalities commission I shall follow up progress on equal pay in the year ahead. Even the rule changes were uneventful, with two out of four movers absent and a third arriving late and only just allowed to speak. In the background, Stephen Twigg and Marge Carey were easily elected to the constituency section of the CAC, and George McManus, an energetic and loyal member of the national policy forum since its formation in 1998 was, sadly, evicted. I am more and more convinced that one-member-one-vote is the only way to get a reasonable spread of views on party bodies.
As usual the policy seminars, closed to the press, allowed delegates and ministers to speak more freely, and in an hour on equalities and citizenship nearly 30 people contributed. They asked the government to finish the job of reforming the House of Lords, and while speakers differed on votes at 16, they agreed on the importance of engaging young people in politics and valuing their energy and enthusiasm. But there was considerable unease over Gordon Brown’s emphasis on Britishness, with Irish, Welsh and ethnic minority members feeling uncomfortable and excluded. Some asked how British values differed from the values of other democratic countries. Unless we are careful, we risk alienating our own supporters, councillors and activists.
Andy Burnham told the prosperity at work session that while personal debt might have tripled, assets had multiplied by seven, though Labour would continue working with vulnerable groups, promoting economic literacy and encouraging responsible lending. And a delegate in the health seminar said he was sick of the knocking media: after four operations in the last two years, his doctors promised he would be fit for many more conferences, while under the Tories he wouldn’t even have been alive.
And Finally …
A young delegate from Bethnal Green & Bow told conference how much his mother, who had worked 60 hours a week to keep her family, would have benefited from Labour’s minimum wage and tax credits, yet felt he had to apologise, twice, for not wearing a tie. A truly inclusive party should pay less attention to how people dress, and more to what they say and do.