Thoughts on the Conference – Juliet McCaffery
There has been much written in the newspapers and reports of the main speeches, so I am writing a very personal view.
I attended the women’s conference on Saturday. The speakers were Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry and Rosemary Duckfield. There were short policy sessions in the afternoon.
The main speaker was Dawn Butler, Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities. She was the first ever black female minister in the House of Commons in Gordon Brown’s government. She spoke extremely well pointing out that 86% of the cuts have fallen on women and listed some of these – the increase in retirement age, cuts in benefit, universal credit and the reduction in nurseries. She also mentioned the high cost of sanitary protection. She was followed by Corbyn who pointed out this was the largest ever women’s conference. He was pleased that women now comprise 50% of a diverse shadow cabinet. His aim was for 50% of MPs to be women. To achieve that we must inspire women at all levels. “It was not a race to the bottom in an offshore island as Boris Johnson would have”.
Rosemary Duckfield, the MP from Canterbury, spoke of Jo Cox and the way the Leadership Programme set up in her memory had trained her. She felt it had really helped her become an MP.
The main conference started on Sunday morning. I thought the conference was fantastic, quite unlike the one I attended as a delegate in Bournemouth many years ago. The atmosphere this time was totally different and gave the impression that delegates had something to contribute rather than, as previously, just being told what to do. The majority of speeches from the platform were followed by debates during which delegates from the floor had the chance to contribute – if they were called. This level of debate was very refreshing and it is important that we maintain this participation at CLP and ward level.
Corbyn’s final speech has been lauded in many places and of course critiqued by the Conservatives. It was really inspiring setting out Labour’s intentions very clearly. Another speech which I thought was excellent was Emily Thornberry’s, very funny as well as political. Both speeches, available online, were excellent and highlighted the manifesto and Labour’s policies, including – living wage, NHS, police budgets, renationalising the railways, minimum wage, benefits, early years, education etc.
Diana Abbott, Shadow Home Secretary, spoke of cuts in police, the fire brigade, health and she spoke about Grenville Tower. Daniel Harris, a young delegate from Hove, who was previously in care, spoke passionately about the need for more housing. Diane Abbott believes Labour has a message of hope that will get Corbyn elected as PM.
I found the emergency motions and the process of referring back quite complicated.
Brighton Pavilion CLP moved an emergency motion on lengthy suspensions from the party. Claire spoke really well and pointed out that it was absolutely unacceptable to leave people waiting for a long time before their case is considered, as is still happening to Greg Hadfield 11 months after he was suspended.
A vote was taken on which motions to debate and the following were chosen. The affiliates (unions) voted for Grenfell Tower, Public Sector Pay, Workers Rights, Growth and Investment. CLPs voted for NHS, Housing, Social Care and Rail. Neither affiliates or CLP delegates voted to debate BREXIT; it was annoying to hear John Snow on Channel 4 news imply the Party had not been allowed to discuss Brexit. Delegates decided to debate other issues.
My particular interests are education, particularly lifelong education and literacy, and equalities, so speeches of particular interest to me were Angela Rayner’s, Shadow Education Secretary, and Kate Osamor’s, Shadow International Development Secretary.
Angela Rayner spoke extremely well. She did not have an easy start in life. As she had a child at 16 and received most of her education as an adult, she was very much aware of the importance of lifelong learning – an issue with which I am very much involved which has largely dropped off the agenda in the last 10 years. Training in skills for employment is extremely important but it requires a reasonable level of literacy and numeracy, which many adults don’t have. I was very pleased to hear her mention the importance of adults having the opportunity to learn.
The policy mentions lifelong learning, but briefly, so it was particularly good to hear her mention it. The audience was pleased to hear Labour will take all schools back into local authority control Angela Rayner also promised to end student fees. Her speech was excellent and extremely well delivered. However, I would have like there to have been greater emphasis on education throughout the conference.
Kate Osamor, Shadow International Development Secretary raised controversial issues such as the continued financing of arms to Saudi Arabia, support to Myanmar. The Tories had stated that our forces in Myanmar were training their forces on British values! The situation of Israel and Palestine was raised and there was a difficult debate on the issue of anti-Semitism. The majority of delegates did not appear to equate supporting Palestine and opposing new Israeli settlements as anti- Semitism.
On Tuesday it was a real privilege to hear Naomi Klein who spoke on a number of issues including not allowing natural disasters to provide an opportunity for the private sector to take over public services. She referred to Donald Trump as a fat burgh (like the one in the London Underground). She stressed the need for green energy.
This year there were a number of policy seminars on Wednesday morning. I attended Work, Pensions and Equality and Early Years, Education and Skills. I had planned to go to the policy seminar “international’ on Monday but it was so full I could not get into the room. Although I had been called in the main conference hall, and noted there was no opportunity to ask questions of the Secretary’s report, I had not been called on two other occasions, so I was very pleased to have the opportunity at the Wednesday seminars. In the education seminar I drew people’s attention to the opportunity for adults to improve their levels of literacy and numeracy; if these are not adequate they will not be able to undertake skills training for employment or progress to further education. In the second seminar, I drew attention to the word BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). We had discussed the meaning of the work in our Pavilion CLP equalities session previously. Several people including myself felt it was not clear. Many people hear the word ‘black’ and forget that there are other ethnic minorities, some of whom are white – people from Eastern Europe who live here and Gypsies and Travellers who have been here for 500 years, yet still experience a high level of racism. This sadly is considered acceptable by very many people including members of all political parties and others, who would not say the same things about any other group. I was delighted that I got some applause.
These policy seminars must be continued and further thought given as to how to best organise them. They are part of Labour’s democratic accountability.
In conclusion it was a splendid conference and a real privilege to be there. Thank you to those who voted for me to be a delegate. I appreciated it.