Ayesha Hazarika: My Labour conference diary
The leader’s speech was a good effort, but the conference bars were disgracefully quiet.
My journey to labour conference always involves packing trauma. I am the world’s worst packer and procrastinator. I decided it was a better use of my time at midnight on Friday to descale my kettle than fill my suitcase. I want to make sure I’m prepared for every exciting social occasion that each unique Labour conference promises. I decide to ditch the cocktail dress and pack the spit hood.
I arrive on Saturday exhausted (I had no idea how tiring descaling a kettle could be), climb into a taxi and in a weary voice squeak “Take me to Labour conference please?” To which the driver replies: “Which one love?”.
And what a perfect metaphor. It is a tale of two conferences. A tale of two parties. Because as well as the official Labour conference, Momentum - the driving force behind Jeremy Corbyn – are staging their own “happening” (I’ve been instructed by James Schneider, a Momentum big wig, that it is NOT a conference… erm… okay) up the road in Liverpool at the same time.
Their conference is called “The World Transformed”. And the world is duly transformed for Labour at 11:30 when Jeremy Corbyn romps home to victory for the second time in less than a year with an increased majority.
The feel of the announcement is very different from last year. The hall is strangely empty, whereas last year it was busier than a Virgin train in rush hour. I don’t know if that is because people have stayed away because the announcement was expected or if Corbyn supporters are at the other event.
So the result is no surprise, and there is little fanfare. Owen Smith supporters (of which I am one) shuffle off looking crestfallen or sheepish.
I rush off to Women’s conference which for some reason clashes with the Leadership announcement and I’m heartened to see a jam packed hall with around 1500 women from all wings of the party.
The women’s conference is an event close to my heart. My former boss Harriet Harman re-instated it when she was acting Leader for the first time in 2010 in the face of some hostility and it has gone from strength to strength. It deserves not to be a side show on the edge of conference but a main event on the floor of conference.
Harriet, who was critical of Corbyn introduces the impressive Angela Rayner who is a big Corbyn fan – and it really works. It makes me wonder if maybe women could be the key to uniting the party by working together on the issues we all so care about which are still Cinderella topics in politics even in the World Transformed.
The next few days are a busy round of speaking at and chairing fringe events which thankfully inject a much needed sense of energy, passion and purpose – they really are the lifeblood of conference. They serve as a welcome reminder of the big questions that we who care about politics must make it our mission to answer and put the internal soap opera into perspective.
Young Labour’s Question Time is dominated by one topic – education. It’s the only show in town for them and the issue of how you instil confidence was a major focus. Cat Smith shows that she’s a passionate and popular advocate for not just young activism but young leadership.
We discuss whether volunteering could be a way of helping young people gain skills and help uniting community at a Fabian event. Anna Turley tells a powerful story about her daily fight for Redcar, a community which has been hit by the decline of heavy industry including steel and the fall out – especially on young people. You would be hard pressed to find a more spirited, socialist Labour MP so I’m genuinely baffled that Paul Mason had called for her deselection last week.
We also have a refreshingly honest discussion about post Pink Bus feminism at a Progress fringe where the strong view is that we have got to do much better on policy and leadership. The idea of an all women shortlist for our next leader is riotously popular including with the men in the room.
But we aren’t going to have a new leader for a while and we need to accept that. It would be ridiculous to stage another contest in the foreseeable future and a bit cringe. As painful as it is to lose, the PLP needs to either get on board or step back but let Jeremy Corbyn and his team crack on with the job. Daily sniping only provides a shield for Corbyn, allows him to look like a victim and makes critical MPs look petulant. As the rather gentle aide in the Vice film suggested – let Jeremy fail on his own terms – or even succeed. But we need to let him own his own future. But own it he must. If he wins, well… we’ll be surprised but cheer him to the rafters; but if we lose the next election, that that will have to be his defeat.
And yet the daily whinge must cease. It’s boring and no one cares anymore. Let him get on with it. And in the meantime, we can get on with more useful things like trying to work out some the answers to the big questions, do good politics and figure out what is our political vision and mission as the moderates – although I hate that expression.
The big finale - aka the leader’s speech - is a good effort from team Corbyn. The speech is well written, well delivered and has a strong message – a million miles away from last year’s ramble. Lots of crowd pleasing promises which you would be hard pressed to disagree with. My personal favourite is the Arts pupil premium in schools, something would transform education especially as the Tories have squeezed arts, music and culture out the curriculum.
Jeremy’s socialism for the 21st century is catnip to the hall. But is that what the country will want? These ideas are lovely. There is no question. But they are also expensive.
When we were last in Liverpool in 2011, Ed Miliband delivered his infamous “predator producer” speech which I helped write which was all about responsible capitalism. The idea was noble, right and has endured with even the Tories trying to ape the sentiment – but it was shot down in flames and the rest is history.
The question I often grapple with is: were we too bold or not bold enough when it came to what the public wanted? That is the central exam question for Labour politics now, and in an age of political disruption there is an argument that nothing is guaranteed anymore. Only time will tell.
On the journey back to the station, my taxi driver/one man focus group offers me his very lively analysis.
He hates Tony Blair and anyone who had anything to do with him. He hates them New Labour idiots. He hates people who voted for Brexit. Liverpool is about the docks and that means welcoming the world to the city. He hates the MPs who bitch about Corbyn. He hates the Tories. Natch.
Now for the positives. He loves Corbyn. He loves that Labour stands for something again. He loves that the party reminds him of what it was like in his dad’s day. He loves feeling proud that Labour has a socialist leader. Does he think we’re going to win? Not a chance. But he would rather we go down with pride.
He offered me one final important piece of analysis as he hauled my suitcase out the cab. “****ing hell love. Wharr’ve got in here? Sort your packing out for ****’s sake.”
Looking back, the overall mood of conference was subdued and quiet. Even the bars were quiet. You didn’t even have to wait that long for a drink at the Pullman. Disgraceful.
There were no queues to get in to the secure zone and very little security. As one lifelong member who has been coming for over 30 years quipped: “Why on earth would anyone want to attack us when we’re doing such a good job of it ourselves?”
All pictures by PA Wire/Press Association Images