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Ed’s speech was a barnstormer. He came into conference the most secure of all the party leaders, but that didn’t stop the inevitable chatter around his leadership from the press. This might. The press have seen now what I saw in Ed before the leadership contest, and what led to me supporting him.
The curly sandwiches have all been eaten, the beer has all been drunk and everyone has a cold. It must be end of conference season. For the first time in my life, I attended all three Party conferences this year. I met and spoke with friends from each Party, and I also took the time to just sit quietly in the throng and listen to what the delegates had to say when talking to each other. This – far more than the stage managed media focused messages from the stages – will tell you where a party is at.
For the last two years I and many others have called and called again for political panels in general – and particularly those around the Labour Party Conference – to be a bit more gender balanced; to at least have one woman speaker on every topic. It really isn’t difficult to do. In the ten years or so I have been organising political events – on an extremely diverse range of topics from waste management to constitutional reform, I have never, not once, put on a panel that didn’t have a female speaker.
To fail to do so shows such a dull lack of imagination that I can’t help feeling it also shows up the paucity of intellectual rigour on offer. So imagine my dismay, as I trawled through the Labour Party Conference app and found event after event offering a stale, pale and wholly male panel.
For me the most shocking are the events discussing the future of party policy and strategy. This is something I have written about time and time and time again. I haven’t been invited to speak on it at any fringe events, but I was looking forward to going along to debate with others who had.
But I won’t be attending The Times and Populus’ event “Labour and the voters” which once again has three male speakers and a male chair. Cos it’s not like any of those voters are women, right??
You can also count me out of the Labour Democratic Network fringe and AGM (two male speakers and a male chair). Not exactly representative democracy is it?
I won’t be “reconsidering Blairism” with Policy Exchange and I won’t hearing “Talking to the Voters: Three arguments Labour must make” with Shelter and Fujitsu. I guess the concept of Blair’s babes is finally as passé as that bloody awful, patronising term.
This is just one topic. Other events that – according to the Labour Fringe App* – have no place for the ladies include several on social policy, crime, Europe, housing etc. The list is very, very long and very, very depressing.
It is also worth mentioning that I haven’t even touched on all the events where there are no female speakers, but the panel is given a semblance of balance by a female chair. That’s all very well, but we’re not here just to play nanny and nursemaid. We have opinions and thoughts of our own and should have the equity to share those – not just umpire while the men fight it out.
Things need to change. They need to change because there is a clear moral case for equity. Representation of women is slipping backwards not forwards. They are under-represented not just in politics at Westminster, but through all the channels that feed Westminster politics, the councils, the think tanks and the pressure groups.
As anyone who has read Deborah Mattinson’s excellent “Talking to a Brick Wall” will know, women voters have the same issues as male voters generally, but tend to talk about them and relate to them differently. It’s not mere tokenism to ask that women’s voices be represented on such panels but the pragmatism that recognises that connecting properly to women voters is essential to our winning the next election. If our male strategists have any sense, they’ll be as much outraged by this as I am.
Next year, Labour should take up the call not to accept any fringe advertisement that doesn’t include a female speaker. But the male speakers should also take up their share of making this change happen. Next time you’re asked to appear on a panel, ask them if any women will be involved, and make it quite clear that you will not appear without women panellists. Equality is the responsibility of all of us and vigilance from all is essential.
Shining a light on the failings of our movement is an essential first step to addressing those failures. Let us now move forward together to ensure that conference 2013 reflects our country and our values.
*All information taken from the Labour Party Conference Fringe App on 20th September 2012. If any of the mentioned panels have since added female speakers, I would be delighted to hear about it in the comments below.
This post originally appeared (with some astonishingly misogynistic comments) at LabourList
Thanks to one of the best measures in the Refounding Labour changes every CLP has been given a free pass for their delegate, and so several CLPs have had the financial barrier to attendance lifted. Therefore there will be more conference delegates attending than has been the case for some time. Given that I have been to conference for the last 11 years straight (my 12th conference in total) and have “failed” as often as I’ve “suceeded” I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts on how to have a good conference and how to get something out of it for yourself and your CLP.
While I have been to conference several times, I have rarely been a delegate, and when I was, it wasn’t when the organisation I was delegating for were trying to pass a motion. So sadly, the world of compositing and proposing is a bit of a mystery to me, though I will try to bluff my way through it (which frankly, would be my advice to you too). But here are some things I can tell you and that I hope will stand you in good stead for leaving on the Thursday morning, bleary, knackered and hopefully happy that you’ve achieved what you set out to do.
1. Set yourself a personal and a CLP conference goal
Talk to your CLP about a realistic goal you can achieve for them. This can fall into any catagory from trying to strongarm a few NEC and Shadow Cabinet members to agree to a visit to your CLP fundraiser or taking part in the debate on a motion you support. make sure that you keep notes on your progess on this goal, as you have a duty to report back on it to your CLP.
This will be the only part of the conference that is specific to your CLP. They will be able to read about the Leader’s and other speeches in the press or at least online, but find out from them what they would realistically like you to bring back (Don’t let them talk you into agreeing an unrealistic goal like securing visits from the whole Shadow Cabinet (unless you’re the delegate from Corby!) or rewriting economic policy).
But also set yourself a personal goal.
Is there someone you’ve always wanted to meet? Conference is a great time for meeting politicians who are usually welcoming of the attention. You can dance the night away with several of them at one of the many receptions that happen every night (see point 3) or simply stop them for a photograph. Don’t be shy about approaching them, but do please be polite. If it’s clear someone is in the middle of a discussion with someone else, don’t simply butt in. Wait for an appropriate moment to introduce yourself. Basically, if you act like a human being who isn’t a dick and remember that the people you want to meet are human beings too, you’ll be fine.
Or is there a point you particularly want to hear a Shadow Cabinet member’s views on or an argument you particularly want to make to them? You might find going to a fringe meeting at which they are speaking the best way to do this. The well thumbed fringe guide – or these days the excellent fringe app – can be an extremely useful tool of the conference goer’s trade.
2. Speaking at Conference
If you do want to speak in a debate there are defintitely good and bad ways of going about this. Trust me, you will see extreme examples of both over the week. To be picked you will need to catch the eye of the Chair. Wear something distinctive that they can single you out with (i.e. the lady in the orange and blue striped suit, the gentleman in the yellow hat waving his papers). Carry something you can wave.
If you do get to speak on the platform, be prepared for nerves. I’m a pretty experience public speaker, and I got my first chance to speak from the platform last year. Learn from my lessons (for a start tie your bloody hair back!) The lights are incredibly bright, and the countdown timer incredibly daunting. Speak slowly and clearly and make your point briefly. Do not shout. Do not bang the rostrum. You may think it makes you look like Nye Bevan, but for those watching it makes it a literally painful experience.
If you are speaking at a fringe event, it’s considerably less daunting. For a start there’s no countdown timer. Please don’t see this as a licence to go on for 5 minutes or worse more! Keep it pithy and precise and respect the rights of other delegates to be heard too. Any time you take extending your point into a speech is time they don’t get to speak themselves.
But don’t let me put you off speaking. A well planned and pithy injection from the floor is frequently the best and most important part of the debate. This is your conference and you should have a voice at it. If you do want to develop your argument further afterwards, it is extremely common practice to approach the speakers after the debate to elaborate. That allows you to make your point foruter if you don’t feel it was properly interpreted in the responses, while also respecting the right of others to be heard. Once again, it kind of boils down to “don’t be a dick”.
3. Surviving Conference on a budget
Done wrong, conference can be a dreadfully expensive affair. But if you accept a simple truth, then conference in a fixed budget is perfectly possible. That truth is:
Do not expect to eat well at conference, but do expect to eat (and drink) for free up to a point.
Pretty much every event on the fringe that is not a fundraiser (i will shortly be publishing detail of a fundraiser for LabourList i am helping to organise) will provide free food. Most evening events will also provide wine and sometimes beer. it will not be healthy food, it will not be fine wine. But it will be free. Until the midnight scrum at the conference hotel bar, you should not have to pay to eat and drink all day.
4. Get some sleep
This sounds obvious, but when you get there, and you’re in the bar talking to a fascinating delegate, a leading politician and the woman who wrote that book you loved, you’ll be amazed how easily it can get to 4am. Despite the fact that you’re committed to attend a breakfast meeting at 7.30! I once had a friend who boasted he could do the whole of conference on 6 hours sleep. Not 6 hours a night, 6 hours total. He doesn’t go to conference any more. In fact, he looks at you with a sort of haunted horror when you mention the mere idea to him. Don’t burn out. Pace yourself and spread your enjoyment.
5. enjoy yourself
Conference is fun. This is a grand social occasion! That’s why they call it Socialism*. A week away from work discussing your favourite topic with like minded folk. Dancing, drinking and debating (sometimes not even in that order!) and networking to with a inch of your life, allow yourself to enjoy it. Yes politics is a serious business, but it does not have to be a po-faced one.
Enjoy your conference. I intend to enjoy mine. And I look forward to seeing you there!
* May not actually be why they call it Socialism.
This year, thanks to one of the best measures in Refounding Labour, many CLPs will be sending delegates to conference for the first time in ages. Many will be first time delegates, with little idea of what to expect. I remember my first time at conference I had no idea what was expected of me, what was required of me or of what I could expect or ask for. It was an incredibly exciting and an incredibly daunting experience.
My first conference was in 1994. I was 19. I came alone, stayed with my uncle in Blackpool and as a very shy teenager spoke to few people. It was the year Tony Blair declared an end to Clause IV in his conference speech, and few people had time to explain to a naive girl what was going on as they threw themselves into factional battle.
Few of the new delegates coming to this year’s conference will be 19 and fewer still will be as shy or befuddled as I was back then. I don’t know what their expectations will be of Conference, but from the conversations I have with ordinary members, what none of them will want is to be stuck in the very-cross fire between two warring factions fighting a battle they feel has nothing to do with their constituency, their fight against the Tories or even much to do with the formulation of Labour Party policy.
If the GMB pursue a rule change at conference, that is their democratic right. But it will be a catastrophic wrong to make the whole conference about this ridiculous, pointless fight.
We have an opportunity with this conference to Engage with more members than ever. To engage them in policy discussion, to train & share best campaigning practice, to inspire those who work hardest with least reward. Those of us who don’t want conference to become an ill-tempered, self-defeating rant-fest have a responsibility to make sure that new delegates see more of the best of conference than us at our worst.
I’ve been going to conference for well over a decade now. I’m a little more adept in it’s rhythms and practices. I’m happy to meet up with any new delegate looking to get the most from conference. Perhaps there are others like me who could offer to do the same? Make sure our new delegates are shown the best of Labour and conference as well as the worst face we’re insisting on showing them and the world.
There are a number of ways we can strengthen the voice of the members in policy making at every stage. This needs to be done with a sense of responsibility on both sides. If we are to practice the collectivism we preach, we need both to make and accept collective decisions. That goes for me campaigning publically for a party fighting to keep Trident, as much as it goes for the Party agreeing to review that decision if the members choose to do so.
I recommend not just an audit trail for any ideas submitted by CLPs, Unions and Socialist Societies to any policy making body, though that is an important first step. I recommend a clear story of the submission. We need to know what body has considered it. If it was accepted for further consideration, we need to know where it goes to next. If rejected, we need a reason why. Not an essay perhaps, but a cogent explanation.
We could reward activity with invitations to be more engaged. If people are giving up large quantities of their spare time, it is unlikely to be out of a sheer love of delivering leaflets. People get involved in politics to be and stay inspired, and to change things for the better. Yes, leaflets are probably important (though when was the last time we tested that, as I don’t think many people read them). But delivering them isn’t enough to make people feel they are making a difference.
MPs need to remember that for every Labour Party member who makes it to Parliament, to Government, to leadership, there is an army of people who made this happen. The lucky few who make it aren’t uniquely blessed by God, they were chosen among a number of other suitably qualified candidates and fought for by a determined army. We praise and appreciate their talents, but don’t ever think that doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally aware of their weaknesses. They are there because of us, and while they are elected to serve the country, their first mandate is to do so in the democratic way that we as a party agree is the best way forward. We have different ideas from the other parties, and we know in our hearts that ours are right. They should never, ever forget that they are there as our representatives. They are not bigger than the party, and the way we all know this is that they wouldn’t be elected as independents.
We don’t work this hard for the betterment of another person’s career, but because we believe in a better way of organising society. That’s important to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need or want to be challenged. We understand the need to be constantly evaluating what this organisation means and would mean to our modern citizens. It does mean that when we take a person on as our representative, this underlying belief is what they are there to represent; That we will only accept a challenge when presented through the prism of our unchanging values.
Having an army of volunteers work for you must feel good. I can understand how MPs may come to think that it is their unique talent that is important and not the collective values they are there to represent. My understanding this doesn’t make it right. It isn’t.
So each MP should have a contract agreed with their constituency, a minimum standard of engagement to which they are expected to adhere to. A contract that – in the final instance – is enforceable by the NEC. This should not restrict them politically, but ensure that where they do disagree with a majority of their CLP on an issue they are at least expected to attend discussions to explain their decision making process.
In this review of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing: Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strong-arming delegates at conferences at which they were supposed to listen to the will of the party, to ignoring what came out of those votes when the strong-arming didn’t go as planned.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labour culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.
What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline was essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making them an inadequate provider of what is needed.
The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are there. Remind the staff what they are for, not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement for Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.
I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want, is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.
Finally, I envisage a completely different way of running our conferences.
A reconstituted NPF (one in which every elected member can inform any one of the policy commissions) would prepare documents based on their discussions and submissions in time for Easter.
Instead of a spring conference that feels like a smaller, less important version of the autumn conference, we would instead invite delegates from every CLP, Union and Socialist Societies as well as 10 MPs selected by lottery to participate in a direct democracy event lasting over several days. These would be closed to the media and be a modernised version of the old compositing events.
Split into manageable tables of 10 with a facilitator and laptop at each table there would be discussion around each section of the documents produced by the NPF. Feedback would be inputted to a central point by the facilitators and the networked laptops would display comments for groups discussion and take in all the input.
The outcomes of these discussions would be voted on by everyone in the room. These would them be put back together again with reference to the voting and comments by the Labour Party Staff for the NPF to sign off to send for final approval at the Autumn conference.
This level of input and scrutiny should give members a real sense of control over the policy making process, while the staff and NPF can keep it on track. Having the initial discussions away from the cameras will also help to ensure that we don’t replicate the terrible conferences of the 1980s while keeping members in charge.
This would also free up more time for the autumn Party conference to be a more outward looking event, where Labour sets its stall out to the nation.
Let’s be clear – Labour has done really well on issues of Gender Equality. When you look at the Labour benches in the House of Commons the difference is stark between our mixed benches and the swathes of men in grey suits on the Government benches. We have taken and continue to take difficult action to ensure that our party is becoming more and more representative and as I have written before, I think this is not only morally the right thing to do, but is also politically beneficial. I am extremely proud of the work done within the party in this area and the obvious difference between us and the Tories and especially the Lib Dems shows how well these measures are working and how needed they are.
However, I was somewhat disappointed that the organisations who come to our conferences to talk to us have not recognised these as part of our intrinsic values. Too often at this year’s Conference we were faced with all male panels again and again. It’s insulting to our values as a party and to myself as a woman to be presented with 4-5 experts over and over again only to be implicitly told that there are no women good enough. I also know as someone who organised panels at conference that it’s just lazy. I always ensured that at the very least there was a female chair, but I also always strived to ensure there was at least an advertised female speaker (anyone who organises events at conference will tell you of the endless horror of speakers pulling out at the last minute, a practice that is not gender-biased!).
Some friends and I started to talk about this and what we though was the best course of action. We don’t want to stop reasonable people holding meetings on the conference fringe. Proper discussion of ideas is what being a democratic Socialist is all about. However those ideas would be better discussed and represented if a wider range of voices were heard. So in true ConDem nudge theory style, it struck us that we would never seek to ban such meetings, but one way to persuade the organisers to think more carefully about their platforms would be to impose rules on the advertising of these events in the official Labour Party fringe guide. The idea is inspired by the rule the Liberal Democrats have where they won’t accept any adverts for meetings in venues that aren’t fully accessible.
As a result, we have drafted the letter below to Margaret Wheeler – chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee:
Advertising of fringe events with no female speakers in the Labour Party conference guide
Over the past few years the Labour party has made massive strides towards gender equality – not least with the make-up of the Shadow Cabinet, making our party being far and away the most diverse in Parliament.
We are however concerned that these values are not always reflected in some of the fringe events, organized by third parties, at Annual Conference. Too often we have attended events where the line-up is all male, with no thought having been given to presenting a representative platform – despite the number of vocal and interesting women in the party.
We understand that the freedom to assemble (in whatever form people choose) is a fundamental human right, and we would not seek to ban such meetings. However we do not believe that there is an equal fundamental right to advertising. We also believe that the Party can and should seek to encourage organizations to reflect Labour’s values more closely when they choose to host events at our conference and as such would like to propose that the Labour Party adopts a rule whereby no event can be advertised in our fringe guide if there is not at least one woman represented on the panel of advertised speakers (accepting that last minute changes occur). We believe there is precedent for this in the rule by the Liberal Democrats that no fringe can be advertised in their guide if it is does not have full disabled access.
We believe that provided sufficient notice was given to potential event organizers, adopting such a rule would not result in the loss of advertising revenue to the Party, but would instead awaken organisations to the causal and lazy sexism of presenting all-male platforms, and will make them more innovative in their invitations – thus improving the fringe overall.
If anyone would like to be a co-signatory of this letter, please get in touch with me, or give me your name and CLP etc in the comments. I will be sendingthe letter in early January as I know such a move would take time to implement and want to give the party as much time as possible to make this work.
I hope that this move will be accepted by the party as the positive step it is intended to be and that we can all work together to make our annual conference as interesting and diverse an event as possible.
Some questions and suggestions from some of the great people I talked to at conference. Apologies for the dodgy filming!
So we won. And not just the leadership contest, but the wider battle to bring the party together and start the process of uniting behind a new leadership and a new direction. The healing process has only just begun and will take time, but Ed’s confident, assured and frankly barnstorming speech, one which outlined every value I have wanted to hear from a Labour leader for so long, started that process. Tuesday the party felt like it was healing the wounds that had threatened to tear us apart. By Wednesday we were looking and talking like one party working together to rid ourselves of the truly destructive force of the government. It won’t be easy and it’s a long hard road ahead, but I do feel we have made the best of all possible starts.
However, it would be inhuman not to feel for David Miliband at this point. He’s an extremely bright and able man who is far more nuanced a thinker than is sometimes presented. He will be a loss to frontline politics, but I believe he has made the right choice for himself and for the party.
Later on I will upload some more videos of some ordinary members I met with their asks for the party.