The 2018 Labour Party Conference: The View from the Inside

Written by Tom Fowler |

It’s a long journey up to Liverpool. It takes a good 9 hours to make your way from the sunny beaches of Falmouth to the cold winds of Merseyside and the North. Under the grey skies and across the rooftops is Liverpool’s magnificent redbrick Cathedral, a monolith visible from most parts of the city. It’s a welcome sight in the cold and gloom for the thousands of Labour Party members that descend on the city for three days in late-September, for this highlight of the political calendar.

Being a delegate has a strange feeling – one week you’re eating pasties and buying drinks in Mangos, the next you’re rubbing shoulders with figures like Dennis Skinner and Len McCluskey, chatting with MPs, seeing international leaders like Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and making votes that really matter.

“A monolith visible from most parts of the city”: Liverpool Cathedral

Last time I attended conference as a delegate was in 2016, and oh, how things have changed. Two years ago, Corbyn was only just emerging from a leadership challenge and an influx of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet. As John McDonnell put it just recently, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership may not have survived if they hadn’t been able to put together a new shadow cabinet amid those resignations.

These events had left the party and the leadership weakened, and the atmosphere was one of reconciliation, with a fresh-faced Shadow Cabinet, and with Theresa May having only just become Prime Minister of a majority government that was going nowhere.

John McDonnell

This year things were different. The feeling was one of victory, with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell looking more prepared and confident than ever before. The doubts of the past were gone, and now words like ‘radical’ and ‘socialism’, words the party once feared to acknowledge, ran in the blood of every speech and event held. What’s more, this time, they had the policies to match.

 

“The doubts of the past were gone, and now words like ‘radical’ and ‘socialism’, words the party once feared to acknowledge, ran in the blood of every speech and event held.”

 

They went beyond the old arguments of nationalisation and funding the NHS (though these were in there too); went further, with genuine pushes of the Co-operative Movement and calls to put workers into the boards of companies, real steps towards free and affordable childcare, and talk of a ‘green jobs revolution.’

They demonstrated beyond a doubt that they were no longer afraid to be left-wing and radical, and that it was about time they were given a chance to deliver these promises. To paraphrase a quote from The West Wing, it was time to ‘let Corbyn be Corbyn’.

 

“To paraphrase a quote from The West Wing, it was time to ‘let Corbyn be Corbyn’.”

 

But it would be wrong to talk about the week’s conference without mentioning the issue that dominated the week’s news, speeches, and votes. Taking place in the wake of the Prime Minister’s disastrous Salzburg Summit – which effectively saw the death of the Chequers Deal – the question on everybody’s lips was what Labour would do about Brexit.

And Brexit was indeed everywhere at Conference. Every few meters on the way from The World Transformed festival to the Conference Centre were spray-painted signs demanding we ‘Stop Brexit,’ and many zealous leafleteers bombarded us as we walked in.

Photo Credit: Tom Fowler, 24/09/18, Liverpool – One of many spray-painted signs covering the floor on the path from Momentum’s The World Transformed festival towards the Labour Party Conference

It would be an understatement to suggest that there was some pressure on the delegates who spent close to six hours thrashing out the details of a vote on Brexit. Yet they managed it, creating perhaps Labour’s clearest stance on the Brexit negotiations so far. As one delegate, Carolanne Marie Lello put it, the Tories could learn a thing or two from those discussions.

The result of the motion was laid out as follows: Labour will vote down anything less than a very soft Brexit deal based on the six tests that the party devised in March last year. Should this be the case, Labour will call for an immediate General Election and, failing that, for a public vote on the final deal which includes the option to remain.

Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

When John McDonnell was talking down the prospect of putting a ‘remain’ option in a public vote, and Keir Starmer was talking it up, they weren’t contradicting each other at all. McDonnell was simply laying out Labour’s preference for a General Election and a desire to not upset the previous democratic result, whilst Keir Starmer was setting the record straight in confirming that the motion on Brexit in Labour’s policy did include the option to remain.

One thing made apparent when you’re on the inside at conference is just how much the media impacts the news that we receive. On the floor you are enveloped by a quiet unity, where the details of the votes are clear and unfiltered, and the speakers are powerful and brimming with certainty.

 

“On the floor you are enveloped by a quiet unity…”

 

Yet every time anyone stopped to read the news, it was like reading about a different world. One full of division and conflicting versions of events. Opinions in publications across the media spectrum couldn’t decide if Labour was for Remain or Brexit. This was clearly nothing short of an attempt to manipulate the story.

We talk of a Westminster Bubble separating politicians from the people, but after just a week ‘in politics’, it felt to me that it was, in fact, a media bubble separating us from the politicians.

 

“The message is clear – ‘The Opposition has become the voice of the people, and now is the time for it to lead the way.’”

 

For me, this conference ended clearer than ever: with a strong and, dare I say it, stable Labour Party, made up of dedicated and hard-working members. A party that can oppose with determination and courage, come together with compromise, campaign with conviction, and, most importantly, is ready to take charge of this country. The message is clear – ‘The Opposition has become the voice of the people, and now is the time for it to lead the way.’

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