Labour Conference 2021: It’s frothy, man

He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. Keir Starmer, who has been heavily criticised in recent months for not ‘setting out a vision’, published a pamphlet and would make a speech. But the commentariat in Brighton this week remained unhappy. The pamphlet was too pamphlety and a speech is too speechy, unless it is spiced up through being heckled. The reporters had wanted Starmer to rip up the Conference timetable and to create news. That didn’t happen, so bored and frustrated reporters instead ran stories about a divided party.

Inside of the Metropole
Metropole Moderne

For what it’s worth, I think Starmer and his team made the right decision to press ahead with their original plans for Conference. Whether or not you agree with the principle of the changes pursued, there is one chance a year to do this work. Leave it this year and you need to try again in 12 months’ time and who’s to say there won’t be another car crash to react to. (After all, the 2019 Labour conference was cut short because of prime minister Johnson’s unlawful prorogation of Parliament.) Britain has had fuel crises before and they haven’t resulted in the kind of reputational shift that leads to subsequent regime change. Besides, Labour doesn’t really do tactical tricks well. A strong intervention could easily have been seen as ‘playing politics’.

I am persuaded by Stephen Bush’s argument that Starmer didn’t really want an electoral college, it was an opening bid in pursuit of what he got: a greater PLP filter for future leadership challengers and in particular a more difficult route towards deselection. There is nothing wrong with opening pitches. It is not completely clear yet whether the £15 minimum wage demand is an opening gambit or some kind of symbolic purity test with which to beat the leadership. We’ll see. But the point of a conference is to discuss this kind of stuff. Otherwise, why bother being in a political party at all? The Conservatives will discuss policy next week and some proposals will be more realistic than others. Whatever happens, though, it will be reported differently.

I didn’t recognise the reports of a divided conference. But that might just be me. Conference is not ‘a bubble’, it is more like a fizzy drink with lots and lots of individual bubbles held together with syrup. It’s frothy, man. We do not each have a representative view of the Conference: there is too much going on and you just have to trust your own sense of it all. At one event, I stood behind one of GB News’s star reporters. He spent the event looking unimpressed and scrolling through a WhatsApp feed in which various GB News people moaned about people being mean to them. (There is civility in politics, which is important, but there is also performative victimhood, on which some culture war actors depend.) He and I were clearly in different bubbles, despite being just two or three feet apart. Eventually, ignored at this fringe, he wandered off to find someone to be mean to him, and missed some sparkling speeches. 

I spent my three days mainly in discussions about rehabilitation, social care and mental health: good, solid roundtables and fringes in which there was, largely, agreement about the problems facing the sector. The main controversy came when one delegate complained about ‘diversity managers earning eighty grand a year’. A spirited defence of the important work done by said managers to try to ensure that the NHS is used by everyone led to the loudest round of applause I heard this week. The Labour front bench were fully engaged (as were, in previous years, Corbyn’s front bench). For me, it was the first time of having face to face discussions in over a year: a real treat. 

The fringes I visited were well-attended, although a greater proportion seemed to be outside the secure zone. Large parts of the Metropole – a conference venue that I have hitherto loathed – were not used and as a result the hotel showed off its cavernous and dated-yet-muscular proportions. (Every bubble’s passed its fizzical, as someone once might have said.)

There were other casualties along the way: the exhibition hall that was fizzing with energy two years ago was relatively flat (the Conservatives’ exhibitor numbers are down too) as organisations gingerly test out conference once again. It also seemed that delegates were more interested in policy and in listening to voters. There were fewer of the cringe-inducing ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ t-shirts in evidence, though retro Labour logo sweatshirts were available from a beefed-up merch stand. And there were very few leafleters offering A5 flyers on every subject under the sun; perhaps they had gone up the road to The World Transformed. Instead, Remain campaigner Steve Bray stood outside the Grand Hotel, blasting out Things Can Only Get Better to delegates. I’ve said before that Labour won’t win power again until it comes to terms with Blair (and Starmer seems to be trying to). As trolling goes it was highly effective at being irritating, at the same time giving the impression that the European Union is yesterday’s pursuit.

Too much fizz is bad for you, as are over-extended running jokes. But this was a good re-entry to the Conference merry-go-round. Starmer’s team may or may not have broken out the ice on the way back; for me a Diet Lilt seemed wholly appropriate. Bubbles are back, man. Bubbles are back.

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