Friday 29 September 2006

Labour Party Conference - Grassroots Success

Despite all the stage management by the New Labour machine, reality did begin to break through in to the Labour Party Conference both in the fringe meetings at the Conference and also even on to the Conference floor. There's been a lot written about the techniques developed by New Labour to control the Conference as a media event which I don't need to repeat here. However even I am quite surprised at the lengths to which the New Labour bureaucracy has gone to seek to prevent any real debate on policy issues. It isn't just the intensive briefing of delegates on which way they're supposed to vote by full-time Labour Party officials or strategically placed members of staff to organise clapping and standing ovations, or even the handing out of hand-written placards by Labour Party apparatchiks. The worse, I suppose, is the delusion that they have that somehow this will prevent the issues being debated and the concerns of Labour Party members about the direction of the Government ever being expressed.

Instead, what occurred this week was the defeat of the Government on the Conference floor on a number of key issues such as health service privatisation, council housing and corporate manslaughter legislation. Outside the Conference chamber the real debate took place where party members and trade unionists couldn't express themselves on the Conference floor. They simply transposed their expression of views in to the fringe meetings. At fringe meeting after fringe meeting it was demonstrated that there is a widespread coalition now for change in direction for the Labour Government. Clear calls were made for a series of changes in Government policy, including ending privatisation, the need to introduce a Trade Union Freedom Bill, the importance of having a real debate about Trident, and withdrawal from Iraq.

So, looking back on Conference week, it's encouraging to report that whenever a vote was allowed on the Conference floor, the Labour Party Conference endorsed key elements of the policy programme upon which I am standing for leader of the party. On the issues where New Labour refused to allow a debate, it was clear from the many packed fringe meetings on these subjects that there is majority rank-and-file support in both the Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions for the policies we are advocating as part of this campaign. So, I have come back from Manchester significantly encouraged that there is a massive basis for support for our campaign, its policies and for our leadership bid.

The whole week was one frenetic series of fringe meetings which I attended and spoke at. This enabled us not just to gage support for these policies, but also get real feedback on the details of policies and how we drive them forward as part of this campaign. People were buzzing with ideas, both about the detail of policy but also about organising the campaign in their communities and in their unions. The Conference has given our campaign a major boost. Of course it's a continuing struggle to gain a breakthrough into the national press, but our effective use of live media this week has given us the opportunity of explaining our policies to a wider audience.

Naturally I try to speak from the Conference platform - but, unsurprisingly, was never called to speak. I was hoping to speak in the debate on the privatisation of the NHS, but was denied the opportunity. In fact the only time allocated to speakers called from the floor in a combined debate on the NHS and education was approximately 15 minutes. Although I was unable to speak on the subject of NHS privatisation, I set out my views on this issue at the LRC/Campaign Group fringe on Wednesday evening. You can see my speech at the Guardian:

The New Labour hierarchy including many Labour MPs and the London-based media still have no understanding of what we're about and the nature of our campaign. We have rejected the traditional path followed by political campaigns in the past for seeking position within Government or a political party. The traditional route is for a small group of MPs to come together and select a candidate between themselves, to determine their own programme of policies and to launch a campaign from a Westminster committee room and invite and cajole other MPs to support them, virtually excluding party members and supporters. So, a fait accompli determines and restricts to a narrow range of candidates - MPs basically telling us who we can vote for. Our campaign has virtually reversed this process. Rank-and-file members of the Labour Party and trade unions have determined that we should have a challenge for the leadership, have proposed a policy programme and have offered a leadership candidate for support. On this basis our campaign flies in the face of all those traditional processes and challenges the very structures of decision-making and power within our party and within the political system. You can see now why they have no idea where we're coming from, what we're about or any understanding of the process we are using. In my view, this lack of understanding leads them to completely underestimating the demands for change within our movement and also the massive potential support for our campaign.