Labour Conference 2021 Reports

Brighton Kemptown CLP had four delegates go to conference this year to represent the constiteuncy and add their vote and voice to future Labour policy and the direction of the party. The following are thoughts and experiences of the five days from two of them.

Ruthie Taylor

I’ve never been to a Labour Party conference before and I was worried that it might be boring. But it wasn’t – I loved it!

Whenever I’ve seen clips of the conference on TV I’ve only seen clips of the leader’s speech or MPs’ speeches/shadow MPs’ speeches. But the highlight of this conference was definitely the speeches made by ordinary members. Loads of members of the party and members of Trade Unions made awesome speeches. For example there were several speeches by young people who were only 16 or 17 years old, who were absolutely inspiring and give you faith in our members and hope for the future.

If you’d like to see the members speaking at the conference, you can watch the conference on YouTube. I’d recommend skipping over the speeches of the people sitting on the panel and just watching the members. 

PR motion

Brighton Kemptown CLP’s motion for Proportional Representation was accepted by the Labour Party. Robert (our secretary ed.) suggested that we got in touch with Labour for a New Democracy, which we did.

On the last update I have from them, 153 CLPs had sent a motion on PR to conference, of which at that time around 140 had been accepted. Additionally, 170 additional CLPs  also have policy in favour of PR although they didn’t send a motion to this conference.

Labour for a New Democracy said

“This is perhaps the most emphatic call for a single policy position in Labour’s recent history”.

On the third day of the conference, the motion was debated on the conference floor. 20 people spoke in favour of the motion and only 2 spoke against it. They then took a vote.

On a show of hands, we had a large majority of delegates in the room. A “card vote” was then taken – in which the unions are much stronger – and unfortunately the motion did not pass.

However, on that card vote, the motion had secured 80% of CLP delegates. Labour for a New Democracy are in fact really happy with this result and view it as a huge success. They said:

“Sadly we’ve not yet secured the backing of the wider Labour movement, meaning the motion fell. 

The truth is, if the Leadership had engaged with this unifying policy as intensively as they pushed their own proposed rule changes, PR would now be Labour policy.

We have shown that Proportional Representation is not only supported by 80% of party members, local parties, and their delegates – but that it is among their highest policy priorities.

We are no longer a group of Labour members attempting to persuade the rest of the membership. Now, we are the Labour membership, and our task is to persuade the rest of the wider Labour movement.”

As you know, at the conference the NEC put forward some Rule Changes. One of them was on Membership Rules.

(page 51 of CAC 1 – Card Vote 4)

This rule change included the following text:

 Members recruited into membership shall be subject to a probationary period of provisional membership during which they shall be provisional members. The NEC may further define rights of provisional membership and issue guidance on provisional membership that must be followed by all members and units of the Party. 
 The General Secretary may at any point during provisional membership rule that a provisional member’s application for full membership be rejected for any reason which the General Secretary sees fit, including but not limited to the provisional member’s conduct prior to their application to join the Party, or on the grounds that the provisional member does not share the values of the Labour Party. 

This rule change was passed, with 57% voting “For” the rule change. That vote result included the unions’ votes.

This rule change codified the arbitrary power of the General Secretary to reject membership applications for any reason at all.

As well as the rule changes put forward by the NEC, some CLPs and affiliated organisations also put forward some rule changes. One of them was on the Election of the General Secretary (Card Vote 12)

(The NEC advised AGAINST this rule change)

Since Keir Starmer became leader, it’s become very clear that the General Secretary can play a massive role in affecting the democratic life of CLPs, determining what they can debate and vote on, and overriding elected officials.

I believe that allowing members to elect the General Secretary would increase democratic accountability through all areas of the party.

Overall, the general effect of some of the rule changes put forward by the NEC is to give more power to the leadership and the PLP, and to take power away from the members and their democratically elected officers.

I’m disappointed by the direction that the leadership is taking the Labour Party because I believe we need more democracy in this country and in this party, not less.

Clockwise from top: Ruthie and Deborah with Andy McDonald MP at the Tribune Rally, Ruthie with Jeremy Corbyn MP, and speaking at conference on decolonising the curriculum.

Tristram Burden

Attending Labour Conference 2021 was a difficult time for anyone on the left of the party. I only joined Labour in December 2019 after 10 years abroad. And I was deeply proud and honoured to represent Brighton Kemptown CLP at conference, and grateful to be in the company of three committed socialists like myself. We were all first-time delegates and largely strangers to each other on Saturday, but by Monday had forged an unbreakable bond of solidarity. It kept us going through what was often an overwhelming, sometimes dispiriting, but ultimately galvanising experience.

A shadow hung over conference. Certain Lords and Ladies were intent on taking the party back from members who had gained more agency a few years ago. Every day I stand empowered by ordinary men and women who got the vote, established the working week, the weekend, and the eight-hour day. Their struggles against entrenched elites produced too many triumphs in that endeavour to feel comfortable with party structures yet again being taken out of the hands of ordinary members.

The most hard-working, energetic and passionate activists are on the left, and if the leadership is going to continue alienating them, it won’t have the army needed to win an election. We don’t need members to get behind the leader — we need a leader to get behind the members. And currently this doesn’t appear to be happening. Keir Starmer seemed to display nothing but contempt for the diverse membership that the Labour Party consists of, from completely ignoring Young Labour and the GND group who tried to interview him on the street, to a failure to actually articulate the policies CLPs and member-led organisations have campaigned hard for.

Our delegation went with the purpose of increasing the agency of the British public, through getting proportional representation done. And we weren’t alone. As Ruthie noted above, 153 or more CLPs had the same goal. While it didn’t pass, with 83% of Labour members in favour, the issue isn’t going away anytime soon. And over conference, I welcomed the celebrations of metropolitanisation and devolution. The brilliant work of Welsh Labour was frequently referenced, as was the need for more work on Northern Ireland, a subject very close to my heart.

I’ve lived all over the UK, but lived in NI the longest, for the duration of the 90s. My mum, my brother and his family still live there. Our first night in Belfast a bomb went off down the street, and as we sat quivering and watched the event unfold on the news, we wondered why we were moving there. In NI when you’re young and queer, long-haired, prone to occultism, think the wrong thing and have a tendency to say it, the threat of violence was from all sides. Progress of the peace process was welcome, and it was Labour that championed it. The Good Friday Agreement brought some welcome peace to a fractious and divided country that became a little less threatening to someone like me.

A large part of our activities as delegates were references back on the National Policy Forum report. I presented two on Saturday on climate and housing. Telling Ed Milliband that we’ve been too slow on climate change since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 was a personal highlight, and rejecting the Tory double-speak of ‘affordable housing’ another. Decolonising the curriculum and trans rights were additionally presented by my fellow delegates. A welcome theme the whole of conference was a repeated refrain from many speakers about the need for racial justice and, from many MPs, most eloquently, Emily Thornberry, that Trans Rights are Human Rights, and the fact that, yes, men can have a cervix.

I was back at work Tuesday and Wednesday so missed Kier Starmer’s speech in person. Action on mental health is a very welcome addition to future Labour policy. But in a society where mental health is consistently under threat from the endless stress and pressure of being forced into relentless competition with each other, the near-absence in his speech of inequality was a glaring omission. A missed opportunity both to galvanise the party, and prove to the public that we’re serious about transforming the country, and not just threatening yet again to tinker ever so slightly around the edges of a deeply broken system. A system where, as I stated at conference during a failed reference back, children starve and bankers still get their bonuses.

Starmer’s speech focused a lot on work. 66% of people on Universal Credit are already in work, unable to work or caring for either young children, elderly relatives or sick partners. Telling them to work harder is just insulting. Some policies he announced — retrofitting houses for energy efficiency and warmth, recruiting more teachers, and investing a set proportion of GDP on research and development — are welcome and deeply needed in this country.

But to focus on ‘hard-working families’ is a duplicitous nod to the social conservatism that’s trying to choke the revolutionary zeal that pumps through the veins of the UK. Even more alarming to me was Starmer’s inclusion of the phrase ‘work hard and play by the rules’ in his recent essay for the Fabian Society. The current rules are set against the majority of hard-working people, decimate the environment and keep a privileged few in power over a deprived many. Meritocracy was a post-war joke written by Michael Young, Labour strategist and committed social reformer. He’d be sorely disappointed about how this illustrative dystopian social model is abused as a template for governance. The people of this country need an alternative to the status quo, not just a weak promise to change the face of their tormentor.

With 4 million people working in poverty, the public need a promise to feed children who can’t get the calories daily needed for healthy brain growth. The conditionality and means testing around benefits are blind to the fact that poverty is the hardest work of all. Starmer seems intent on perpetuating a myth that the British people are lazy and undeserving of their public services. Nothing is harder work than relentlessly having to prove your dignity and humanity to a government that assumes, because of your poverty, you have none. But Starmer seems ignorant that this kind of hard work is increasingly failing the millions who toil at it.

In his short time as leader, Starmer has hinted at his priorities. But if rebuilding communities is a priority, where are the proposals for free high-quality public education? Where are the assurances for enhancing the well-being and health of this country through a fully nationalised health and social care service, free at the point of use and protected from the profit-maximising tendencies of the private sector? Where are the proposals for state-owned energy, broadband & transport enterprises that will connect, warm and power the productivity of the British people? Business aligned to public purpose is the only business worth having in this country, but where are the proposals for corporate reform away from short-term investment, share buybacks and over-inflated CEO salaries?

Despite the leadership making my politics feel unwelcome, I’m keeping my Labour membership and doubling down on my activism. I find inspiration and leadership from the history of our party, the principled values of many of its members, and the hard work of local and national progressive Labour councillors and the overtly socialist and principled MPs that push the party to adopt a truly transformative agenda of higher wages, revitalised public services and decisive action on climate change.

The anodyne future Starmer is offering the British people is another slow-death sentence, not distanced far enough away from the Tories that are trying to break the backbone of this country. We’re going into a winter where too many will be forced to choose between groceries, internet or heating. The promise to keep people warm, fed and digitally connected is hardly radical, but Starmer must dare to be radical to bring this country back from the brink of total ruin.

Tristram Burden with John McDonnell MP, Cllr Amanda Evans and NEC member Gemma Bolton, and with Jeremy Corbyn MP at the Tribune Rally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.