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Fixing the annual upside-down spectacle of Labour conference

Conference 2013As this year’s Labour party conference fades into the abyss, I can’t help recalling a sentence spoken to me outside the Brighton centre on a bright morning towards the end of the week:

“Our delegates find that the most interesting part of conference is the fringe.”

The speaker was a newly-selected parliamentary candidate, and we were discussing the malpractice I had witnessed from party staff in conducting the internal elections that took place at Labour conference. And despite my strong feeling that Labour activists can’t afford to give up on the one body in which their voices have any sort of shot at being heard, I couldn’t help agree with her.

If you wanted lively debate, you could head to a panel discussion with polar voices on the billing. It’s what Young Labour aimed at with its lineup of Owen Jones, Shami Chakrabarti and Dan Hodges.

There were no hustings for the votes that delegates would actually take part in during conference: but on the fringe, attendees could look forward to what will likely be Labour’s next big decision day, with an unofficial hustings for London mayor.

There was even a meaningful and understandable vote – where no pressure was put on delegates one way or another!

Back in the hall, the opening session featured a promise that there would be fewer ‘roundtable discussions’ – ie. the ubiquitous sofas – due to conference being a day shorter than usual. But there was no getting rid of the sofas. Delegates were told time and time again that there was no time left for their contributions. The sofa dwellers, hand-picked by party staff, were meanwhile given a license to mither indefinitely, starring shadow ministers as bad imitations of Richard and Judy.

These sessions would undoubtedly be more at home on the conference fringe, where similar, but more lively discussions happen thirty-fold each lunchtime and evening.

Then there’s the awards ceremonies. These at least have a significance and purpose, and little can match the sofas in dullness. But rather than interrupting valuable time for debate, couldn’t this all be dealt with in a few minutes at the start of each day?

The conference hall sessions are enough to depress any delegate: a theatre of the bland leading the blind. It’s no surprise then that delegates head off to the fringe to get their fill of lively debate.

And as we’ve seen, the only decisions where you’re not blinded by displays telling you which way to vote (as happens in the conference hall with the “NEC recommendations”) are now in jeopardy. It turns out delegates were told how to vote anyway, in breach of party rules.

Maybe that’s why the delegates’ seats are rarely full: I spoke to one constituency delegate at conference who told me they had not been present for a single vote. Why bother, if it’s all a fix anyway?

And yet fringe events can rarely offer more than a talking shop. Neglect the conference hall, and it’s no wonder that democratic rule changes get voted down.

Both CLPD (see back page) and Labour First have recently suggested comprehensive reforms to party conference, neither of which involve giving up on it as a meaningful decision-making body. They deal with the fact that conference has ended up upside down – and the passion and the effort has been placed in the fringe, where it gets its best articulation, but where it cannot be applied to any use as far as party structures are concerned.

The difficulty, of course, is that delegates won’t put their efforts into conference itself until it seems like something worth its salt. A vicious circle indeed – but there’s no way to solve it other than going back stronger next year, and making sure that delegates know exactly what their roles and rights are, and how to stick two fingers up at those hypothetical crooked officials.

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