In the run up to Labour Party conference there were predictions of doom and gloom, and bust-ups throughout the week in Liverpool. As an attendee it couldn’t have been further from the truth. While the party is in a bit of an unhappy place, it felt like business as usual.
As a bit of a stalwart of conferences, attending the previous four, I had come to learn what to expect. And despite talk of new politics, and a bustling membership, the people I bumped into were the same faces.
Sure there were a few enthused by Jeremy Corbyn’s politics, but the people I saw discussing rural issues or attending regional meet ups were those I’d rubbed shoulders with over the last four years. It was reassuring they were all still involved with local politics and that they hadn’t been disillusioned by what had gone on previously, but again this showed where works needs to convert new members to the serious side of party business.
This was my first time in Liverpool, having had some magical times in Manchester and Brighton over the years previous. I was apprehensive about finding my way around a new city, and whether this year’s conference was a week off work well spent, or whether it would leave me (bizarrely) wanting to return to work.
Despite managing to book the wrong train ticket on the way up, having to buy another (which turned out to be a senior railcard ticket), and being stuck behind someone sniffing every 10 seconds on the train, I soon became acquainted with Liverpool. The city itself is incredibly friendly, and feels considerably modernised, much like most cities of the North. Everything seemed to be in one place, there was a great offering of shopping, tourist attraction, and a bustling night place. The weather was mixed, but I felt at home over the week.
The Political Stars
For many the aim was to meet Corbyn. I didn’t vote for Jeremy, but I was keen to catch-up with those we campaigned for in 2015. Ed Miliband, who was only speaking at two events this year, spoke about how politics had changed since he left office. The likes of Brexit, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the future of the Labour Party.
Tom Watson gave a rousing speech as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party about why we shouldn’t trash some of the tremendous achievements Labour managed while in power. Andy Burnham reminded everyone of the challenges the party faces after the EU referendum, on issues like immigration. Sadiq Khan couldn’t walk around conference without the need for security guards as London Mayor, a stark contrast to events of years gone by.
As for Corbyn, we expected him to win. So Saturday’s result (which saw me loitering around behind Adam Boulton rather than being in the hall) wasn’t a surprise. Owen Smith started off the campaign well but lost his ‘momentum’, yet somehow still managed to win a majority of Labour Party members who joined before the last General Election. This was a sign of how the party was changing. That was most apparent from the fact a splinter “alternative” conference was taking place down the road. It wasn’t branded as a Momentum conference, but “The World Tomorrow”. Parts of that sounded impressive, but I saw no reason why it couldn’t form part of the official Labour Party Conference fringe events.
Perhaps Momentum running their own events was why conference this year didn’t feel any different to past events. The crowds of new members remained away from the complex, with the exception of a few. Had those people all turned up the story may have differed. The discussions would have been different, votes might have gone different ways. Next year could be the game-changer.
Getting the band back together
That said Jeremy Corbyn was impressive in his Wednesday speech. ‘21st century socialism’ might not win over everyone, but it sent a powerful message to the nation. He seemed to be getting the band back together, and got more commentators talking about policy instead of presentation. The fact he wasn’t reading out the autocue prompts (“important message here”) was a bonus. The front pages of the dreaded “mainstream media” were more absorbed by the Sam Allardyce story. The wider coverage seemed more accepting of Corbyn than most of this year.
There were rising stars within the Labour Party shining through this week too. Angela Rayner caught the media’s attention as being a teenage mum who entered politics after leaving school with no qualifications. She offered a new working class perspective, and a new Northern voice in the shadow cabinet. Clive Lewis may have won over some new fans after showing he wasn’t just a cheerleader for Jeremy Corbyn’s team. Meanwhile some impressive MPs were touring the fringe events. Like Lisa Nandy, talking about the important issues that would reconnect the party with voters who had since deserted us.
Earlier in the leadership contest there had been talk of splits within the party. That MPs and councillors would be joining other parties. This all seemed to be rhetoric. The factions (Progress and Momentum) were warring throughout the week, and I have no doubt that will continue. However, that’s nothing new – the Labour Party has always been a broad church which involves a fair bit of compromise. But it must continue to be a place where all ideas are welcome. It might feel an uphill struggle at times, but I left Liverpool optimistic that (as the karaoke hit goes) things can only get better. We can only hope.