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View from the balcony - a personal review of Labour's conference

Hemel Labour Party member Ian Ridley looks at the Brighton Conference and its lessons

THE PROBLEM for Labour in this Conference season is that the Tories, as the party of government, get the last word. It’s a bit like a court case, where the defence speak first and sound so compelling, only for the prosecution to leave the lasting impression on the jury’s mind by casting so much doubt.

And so we can expect all the great speeches in Brighton, all the impressive policy initiatives, to be mocked and rebuffed by the Tories in Manchester next week. Our task as a party will be to challenge them on the misrepresentation of Labour they will undoubtedly advance, particularly on economics.

Because no matter how innovative Labour are on all the big issues - such as Brexit, the NHS, education, housing, transport and pay, for example – the Tories will always deride us as being unable to cost it and pay for it all.

This from the people who have DOUBLED the national debt despite austerity – or more probably because of it – and failed to cost their manifesto before the last election when Labour did cost theirs, through the proposed increase on corporation tax and making the richest pay their fair share.

How will the Conservatives pay for things, meanwhile? Well, economic growth, of course. That’s what they tell us. Except that under them currently, there is no growth. Only inflation.

And after we have challenged them next week, we then need to convince the wider public, the electorate, that we can deliver, on such as Brexit, where Keir Starmer has become so influential a figure that Theresa May has now actually stolen Labour policy, announcing in her Florence speech a desire for a transition period, to include membership of the single market and the customs union.

As Keir Starmer said on Brexit: “Labour are the grown-ups in the room. The Tories are suffering from post-imperial delusion and a willingness to put other people’s jobs at risk.”

We have to convince people, too, that we can actually implement what was promised in Brighton by John McDonnell on the economy, especially when it comes to nationalisation and his desire to create a Ministry of Labour, and by the compassionate Jon Ashworth on health and by Angela Rayner on education.

Even many Tories, according to polls, can see that renationalisation of the failing railways makes sense. And who cannot warm to the proposal for a lifelong, cradle-to-grave National Education Service, providing for people at every stage of their life so nobody feels discarded by the system?

They were just two of many new ideas as speaker after speaker, Shadow Minister after Shadow Minister, came up with policy announcements that reflected a vibrant, fresh approach to politics that is leaving bereft Tories floundering for ideas of their own to address the current challenges of our society.

I spent four days as a self-funded visitor at Brighton, in the hall and at fringe meetings, intrigued, fascinated, educated and energised by much of what I heard. It is clear that there is a unity to the party again that was not there until six months or so ago.

Then, at the call of a snap election, no matter our sympathies with the various shades of opinion within the party, we all pulled together using our individual skills and gifts to halt the Tories and their potentially cruel programme of more cuts and contempt for anyone who wasn’t one of them.

Now comes the true test for the Labour Party – to maintain that unity both for our own internal health and to win the credibility of the electorate.

I’m going to be honest here. I found it difficult at times to go along with the clamour and cult of leadership surrounding Jeremy Corbyn. And I speak as someone who voted for him as leader because I wanted a shake-up of politics.

For many years, we all decried the politics of personalities, insisting it should be about policies. We cannot now change our minds on that, just because we have found a man who campaigned exceptionally well at the last election and has the engaging charisma, though different by nature and vision, of a Tony Blair.

And I found Jeremy’s speech overlong, with so much great sense and material being overwhelmed by long-windedness.

That said, he was bang on the money about the centre ground of politics, from which elections are won, having shifted. Now, a radical agenda is much more mainstream. People are sick of the failed politics of austerity. The young simply are not buying modern capitalism as it excludes their prosperity at the expense of those who already have it.

Having attended a fringe meeting on polling, I can say that Labour are making some surprising strides in the middle ground and middle-aged categories as well. Where we need to make bigger gains is among the retired. And the way to do that is not to pander to their self-interest, their fear of losing what they have, but to appeal to their feel for their children and grandchildren on pittance wages and who have trouble finding housing, and who will then will see their potential inheritance go on care home fees.

Let’s be honest, Labour did not win the last election as Len McCluskey reckoned, to rousing cheers. For all the gain in votes after the misery of 2015, unexpected and welcome as it was, Labour won only four more seats (262) in 2017 than in what was seen as the debacle of 2010. We still need to win another 64 for an outright majority.

In John McDonnell’s speech there was concession to centre left party members like myself of all the good Blair and Gordon Brown did economically in their first term of 1997, notably in investment in public services and the rebirth of the NHS.

Sadly, in the hindsight of the Iraq War, it seems that the many other achievements of that Labour era – including peace in Northern Ireland and the minimum wage – dare not speak their name.

But, as the Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones said in Brighton, quoting his great predecessor Rhodri Morgan, who sadly died this year: “Labour always does best when it mixes the mushy peas of old Labour with the guacamole of new Labour.”

Whatever the shade of red that may hold sway at any given time, Labour will always be my party, the one I voted for when first eligible at the 1974 General Election, won by Harold Wilson, though it produced a hung parliament.

Why? Because of something simple, beautifully expressed, I read in John O’Farrell’s new book, Things Can Only Get Worse: Twenty confusing years in the life of a Labour supporter, which I have been reading lately:

 “Labour want to govern to make the world better. The Tories want to govern to make THEIR world better.”

The real star of the last election was the Labour Manifesto – “our vision of hope,” as John McDonnell called it - that was arrived at by consensus of the National Executive Committee and the National Policy Forum, in conjunction with shadow ministers and the membership. And it has to be the way we campaign at the next election, which might be sooner than we all think should the damaging Tory divisions be exposed in Manchester next week.

After our feel-good Conference, I want any lingering divisions of our own to be healed, hatchets to be buried – on all sides - and such immense political brains as Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle brought back into the front-bench fold for the good of all when opportunity arises.

If we can harness our policies and people, as shown in Brighton, the next election can and should be Labour’s. It will make us compelling, demanding of credibility. And as a veteran Welsh Labour voter said in another brilliant video made for Conference by the wonderful filmmaker Ken Loach: “Power never concedes without demand.”

Here in Hemel, Mike Penning is wobbling, sacked as a minister by Theresa May soon after having had his majority slashed by a third at the last election by Mandi Tattershall, behind whom we all united and must do so again when the time comes.

As Emily Thornberry said at Conference: “There is no seat we can’t win. No Tory we can’t bin.”

Here’s to Labour having the final word during Conference season in the not too distant future.



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