The Labour Party South East Regional Conference took place in Southampton over a freezing weekend in February and the weather seemed to emphasise the starkness of the reality for Labour in our region. Southampton is Labour’s Flagship of Labour representation in the South East, in fact it is almost the entire fleet.
Success in the South East is vital to Labour’s success in any future general election and working from such as low base, a lot needs to be done. It would have been nice if there had been some sense that the Party recognises that members are volunteers not conscripts in the battle for success and had engaged with them more collaboratively at this conference but that was noticeably not the tone set .
This conference was clearly about Refounding Labour to win in the South East and the management process required to organise the troops effectively to win elections. The conference consisted of:
- pep talks from parliamentary colleagues,
- the appropriate training workshops needed to up-skill us for delivery,
- some voter ID practice sessions on the frozen streets of Southampton.
What was missing was any meaningful discussion about the point of all this. Contributions from conference attendees were restricted to short Q&A sessions following on from speeches from MPs that were long on criticism of the Tories but short on an alternative agenda.
Harriet Harman reminded us of how well Ed and Andy are defending the NHS and rallied us all behind Ken’s bus fare policy. Caroline Flint boldly declared that energy tariffs would be less confusing under Labour. One questioner tried to liven things up by suggesting that the complexities of energy tariffs and the issue of fuel poverty could be eliminated completely by renationalising the energy companies . Caroline’s response was that you could forget talk of nationalisation , once you start down that route you’d end up talking about nationalising the railways and all sorts of other things and that would never do. Many in the audience thought it would do a whole lot better than anything they had heard so far from Caroline.
There was a surprise guest appearance by Alistair Campbell who was in town to watch Burnley play Southampton. He just happened to bring a few copies of his latest book for a signing in the foyer of the conference hotel, and to encourage sales he was invited to address the assembled mass . I can’t report on what he said as I find the way in which this odious figure has been reinstated in the Party as some kind of heroic champion of integrity too much to bear and I left the room.
After Alistair, Stella Creasy bounced on to talk about something called ‘salami slicing’ the main flaw in the Tory’s approach to the cuts. She mentioned it three or four times and I still couldn’t understand what it was but she sounded as though she was on the right track to somewhere.
By Sunday morning everyone had given up on the questioning having failed to illicit anything even vaguely inspirational from the speakers on the first day. A long pause followed John Denham’s speech. The conference Chair finally managed to coax a contribution from the floor. Someone asked why the policy priorities for the South East, affordable housing for example, had been largely ignored by the Labour Government. John suggested that this was because members in the region had not got their act together well enough to push forward their issues.
In response someone suggested that perhaps what was needed was a regional conference to discuss policy. John said this was not a good suggestion as the Party was not really interested in hearing what party members had to say, unless it is backed up with evidence from the conversations held on the doorstep. I am not sure what the experience on the doorstep is like in Southampton but from my very recent experience of canvassing in my area the only feedback I get from the doorstep is that voters think all Parties are the same, politicians are all in it for themselves, the country is overcrowded and they can’t understand why we insist on calling them when they are in the middle of dinner, Eastenders or changing out of their pyjamas.
Not much of a basis for a manifesto really. Perhaps the views of the membership have some value after all. If only we could convince Liam Byrne of that.
Carol Hayton is a member of the South West Regional Board, and one of the region’s National Policy Forum representatives. Last weekend, she stood down after a year as Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.