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The times they are a-changing: Reflections on Labour party conference

In the first of our three-part series on Labour party conference, Becky Slack reflects on the party’s journey from disorganised and divided to “government-in-waiting."

Autumn is always a busy time of year. Everyone is back in the office after the summer holidays, refreshed from their time off and keen to get projects completed before Christmas. This is the time when we get the most calls from people who realise they don't have the capacity or the skills to do what they need to do and that some extra help is needed.   

It’s also party conference season. When the good, the bad and the interested descend on the UK’s cities and coastal towns to discuss, debate, and drink with friends and foes.  

Conferences with very different atmospheres  

As an event chair for the New Statesman, it used to be that I’d be sent to all three of the main conferences: Lib Dems, Labour then Conservative. All were good fun for various reasons: Lib Dems was always an uncomfortable mix of people on the left and right trying to find ways to work together; Labour tended to be scruffy with great ideas but no joined-up narrative and terrible wine; while the Tories always came up top trumps with fancy canapes and booze but one had to suffer conversations with politicians who didn’t appear to have a clue about the lives of ordinary people. A 2015 panel debate on the housing crisis with a Conservative MP was particularly memorable for the way in which he tried to argue that “the reason young people don’t buy houses is because they choose to invest their money in different asset classes”. And for the record, by asset classes, he wasn't referring to student debt or high rents.  

This year’s hot ticket event 

It was a different story this year. The Lib Dems had dropped off the political radar after the coalition ended. The Tories, struggling to maintain both their relevance and humanity, were far less popular than usual, meaning it was the Labour party conference in Liverpool that was this year’s hot ticket event.  

And boy was it hot - in both the literal and figurative sense. It used to be that party conference goers would be blasted with wind, rain, and hail. This year, it was positively Caribbean. But while a whiff of sweat did permeate too many of the crammed conference and fringe events, the pong of division and dissent that had been the feature of too many Labour conferences in recent years had gone. Labour MPs had an air of confidence about them, members were cheery and hopeful, the business community positive. Indeed, many of the business leaders Vic Barlow and I spoke with while chairing New Statesman fringe events described Labour as a “government in waiting”. 

The Labour messages were clear and consistent  

Another significant change this year was that there was more clarity and consistency of messaging. The vision for the Britain Labour wants to build was clear: get Britain building again; switch on great British energy; get the NHS back on its feet; take back our streets; and break down barriers to opportunity. “Together we fix tomorrow’s challenges, today” glittered Starmer from the main stage.  

The specifics of this vision were discussed, debated, and challenged in more detail in the smaller events that took place around conference, including in the 16  17 panels and roundtables that Vic and I chaired between us. An overarching theme that came across from the party - and the organisations hoping to influence it - was a recognition of the need for sensible policies that are then stuck to – as opposed to the dog-whistling and flipflopping that has dominated the Conservative government’s policymaking for so long. A strong narrative, brave investment decisions and giving the skills crisis urgent attention were also on the long list of demands from delegates.  

Impact of world events 

The dark cloud hanging over the top of the Labour conference was of course the conflict that was unfolding in Gaza. As we arrived in Liverpool, stories were emerging of the festival massacre and hostages; by the time we left thousands of people in Israel and Palestine were dead and life was never going to be the same again. The vigil organised by Labour Friends of Israel was over-subscribed and impossible to get into. The Medical Aid for Palestinians reception was a somber affair, tearful at times, as the team paid tributes to those who had already been lost their lives, including colleagues’ families, and acknowledged that things were going to get much, much worse before they got better. 

Far from a done deal 

The horrifying news from the middle east was a stark reminder that despite the positivity and hopefulness of Labour conference there is plenty to deal with in the present world. The election result is not yet a done deal – much can happen between now and voting day whenever it may be next year. There are still many conversations to be had, policies to be ironed out, opportunities to explore - and, if Vic and I are representative of the health of delegates after leaving the conference, there’s a super dose of Covid to overcome.  

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