South East Regional Conference, 20/21 November 2021

Three years after the last conference, in Southampton in 2018, we gathered at Reading University.  It was good to meet in person and the weekend felt rather more Covid-secure than annual conference in Brighton.  We were welcomed by councillor Rachel Eden (a former co-chair of the Oxford & District Party) and Jason Brock, leader of Reading council.  Despite austerity Reading were still running their own bus services, building council homes to high environmental standards, tackling inequalities and putting the living wage and Labour values at the heart of procurement policies.

Anneliese Dodds, party chair and shadow secretary for women and equalities, highlighted Labour’s new deal for working people, policies to tackle violence against women and girls, and the independent complaints process.  Only Labour could protect both jobs and the planet.  She was joined by Peter Kyle (MP for Hove, shadow schools minister and recently promoted to shadow secretary for Northern Ireland) and Becky Cooper, leader of the Labour group in Worthing where Labour hopes to take control after a by-election on 2 December.

Questions included whether Labour was still committed to removing charitable status from private schools, to which the answer was Yes, with the £1.8 billion savings going towards teachers’ professional development.  Becky and Peter stressed that politicians had to listen as well as talk:  listening to Tory voters didn’t make us Tories ourselves, it helped us to defeat the Tories.   Anneliese said that her Stronger Together policy review would outline a vision of Britain in 2030, and we should trumpet Labour’s local achievements.  There was an excellent debate on proportional representation at annual conference, but this was a separate issue from electoral pacts.  Panellists said that would not take kindly to leaders in darkened rooms telling them what to do, and calls for Labour candidates to stand down were far more numerous than reciprocal offers from other parties.  However funds would be sensibly targeted.

Beyond the Fringe

I went to a lunchtime session by the Labour Movement for Europe, where members supported positive campaigning around the themes of building bridges and breaking down barriers.  Young people should be at the forefront as it is their future which is most at stake.

This was followed by a presentation on digital campaigning, rather too techie for me but all the details are on the party website.  No news on when CLPs will be able to access up-to-date membership information again, essential for updating roles and personal details, selecting candidates, running trigger ballots, holding AGMs, electing delegates to women’s conference, welcoming new members, and generally knowing who is and is not entitled to attend and vote at local meetings.

Luke Pollard, then shadow secretary for the environment, food and rural affairs, led a session on rural and coastal areas.  Fishing, farming, good quality air and food standards were all important, and we should renew our 1945 promise of a nation able to feed its own people.  Labour had lost the majority of its rural seats, and villages were now losing their last buses and their last shops.  Discussion ranged over affordability, hidden hunger and the right to food, pesticide use, animal welfare, and the hollowing out of rural areas through second homes and holiday lets.  Labour should inspire positive alternatives on all of these, rather than issuing apocalyptic warnings:  Martin Luther King did not begin his speech with “I have a nightmare.”

Saturday finished with an hour’s debate on motions.  Most were carried with little or no dissent:  on a national care service, publicly-owned rail, green transport, water nationalisation, misogyny as a hate crime, and ending food insecurity.  As at annual conference proportional representation, this time for local government elections, was the main bone of contention.  It was moved by the Isle of Wight, where Labour won 24% of the vote at the 2019 general election and 13% at the most recent council elections, yet only had one out of 39 councillors.  They were supported by speakers from South West Surrey, from Eastleigh and from Bracknell, where 25-30% of the vote should give them 10-12 councillors rather than the current three.  Opponents argued that Labour should fight to win in every seat and pointed out, with some justification, that this change could not be enacted without gaining power under first-past-the-post.  A show of hands was unclear, and a card vote rejected the motion, with 41.7% in favour, 58.3% against.  I do not yet have the breakdown and cannot tell whether the split between CLPs and trade unions reflected the split on proportional representation at annual conference, where 80% of CLP delegates voted in support.

Sunday Morning

The new regional director Teddy Ryan said that his priority was building the south-east infrastructure and replacing Boris Johnson with Keir Starmer in Number 10.  With 84 constituencies, rising to 91 after the boundary review, the regional office could not meet all demands immediately.  He praised the GMB union for their successful action against the Green-run council in Brighton and Hove, and the Community strikes against fire-and-rehire tactics at Clark’s.  Local government had to diversify its pool of candidates, and “we can’t find any women” would never be an excuse.  He would work with the newly-elected equalities representatives on training and mentoring programmes.

Further motions followed, on food insecurity, care services, accessible and integrated public transport, levelling up including deprived areas in the south-east, sick pay for self-employed workers, housing and homelessness, adult social care, and compassionate debt collection processes for councils.  The only contentious debate was around a motion from Buckingham which asked that local authorities should be required to assess and plan for all needs within their communities, with high-quality and sustainable housing for all, rather than focus on arbitrary targets, and called for the Ox-Cam arc and all similar top-down projects to be scrapped.  The motion had elements in common with the Marston motion on Oxford’s local plan agreed at the October all-member meeting, though unlike that motion it did not identify economic growth as driving increased demand, and could be seen as preventing the building of homes which are already needed.  I voted for it with some reservations, but it was heavily defeated.  An alternative motion calling for Labour to build 150,000 homes a year for social rent, end right-to-buy, and empower councils to requisition 250,000 long-term empty properties for council use with minimal compensation was carried overwhelmingly.

Going Forward

As well as discussion and debate this conference also elected the new regional executive committee for the next two years.  A full list is at

https://www.laboursoutheast.org.uk/regional-executive-committee/

For Oxfordshire CLPs I was elected unopposed as the only woman nominated, alongside Perran Moon of Banbury.  I voted for Perran as the Oxford East nominee, and we have an additional local member in Keith Hamilton of the CWU, elected in the trade union section.  Following the initial round Vince Maple from the local government section was re-elected as chair, I was elected as a vice-chair from the CLP section, and Maureen Cleator of UNISON was elected unopposed as the vice-chair from the trade union section.

I voted for Vince and myself, and believe that working with all REC members, new and old, we will continue to pursue south-east concerns, including winning elections, arguing for more resources, improving communication with local parties, trying to get complaints and grievances resolved, increasing diversity among elected representatives, and enabling all CLPs to choose their parliamentary candidates.

For the last breakout session I chose the opportunity to chat with other role-holders, which again focused on IT issues.  The other options were campaign planning and anti-semitism awareness training.  Finally Vince thanked the party and venue staff and everyone involved in making the weekend a success, and Slough MP Tan Dhesi gave a rousing speech to close the conference, followed by the traditional singing of the Red Flag.

Please contact me if you would like any further information.  A copy of the motions is here, and a pdf version of this report is here.

Ann Black, Delegate, Oxford East CLP, annblack50@btinternet.com / 07956-637958