Thursday 29 September 2016

The Labour Party Conference 2016 - Good feeling of Sunday lunchtime unity lost by the evening

I have realised that the problems encountered on Sunday evening at the Labour Conference are the cause of my tardiness in writing these blog posts. I needed a little time to calm myself to ensure that my words were balanced and objective. To be honest I was shaken up a little and if I was other than I am, a grizzled old bloke with decades of experiences to fall back on, what happened when my wife and I visited the Momentum Conference held in the Black E would have been very upsetting.

The Black E. Photographed by the BBC on a quieter day

We were interested in attending the debate on anti-semitism that was hosted by Momentum. I was very pleased that they decided to explore this theme as the accusations made against Labour have to be fully discussed if only to satisfy those critics who believe that the Labour Party does contain elements who are anti-Jewish. The list of speakers was impressive and this seemed like a go to event but unfortunately we could not get in as there was a long queue to get into the building (I estimate a couple of hundred of us). To the credit of Momentum we were kept informed about how long we would have to wait but, in the end we were told that despite the switching of this meeting to a larger room that was now full so we could not get in. As to what happened in the meeting I depend upon this report of proceedings: New Statesman report by Anoosh Chakelian which contains some degree of criticism towards (amongst others) Jackie Walker the chair of the meeting. I do however take some comfort from the update to the article:

 Momentum appears to be distancing itself from Walker’s comments at this event. A spokesperson emphasises that the group hosted the discussion on antisemitism in light of the Chakrabarti inquiry “because it is absolutely crucial that our movement understands how antisemitism manifests itself, and works to stamp it out in society as a whole as well as in our party”.

That's well said and I do hope that the Labour Party can benefit from the wise council of the Jewish Labour Movement headed by Jeremy Newmark. Working together to prevent not just claims of anti-semitism but anti-semitism itself must be our goal. There has subsequently been published a fascinating article in the Guardian:  

This is truly a minefield and I comment on this issue with some trepidation so I urge you to look at both articles and make up your own mind. Such a pity that we could not get into the meeting.

What happened next

If we had managed to enter the Black E then the bit of nastiness that followed would not have happened. We stood to the tail end of the queue, very close to a group from the Wallasey Labour Party branch that has been suspended: see here for the BBC report on that suspension. I have some sympathy for branch members who are denied a voice but as all branch meetings were subsequently suspended across the whole country my interest in the plight of the Wallasey branch faded away. That is until Sunday evening when the Wallasey branch staged a street meeting beside the Black E queue where speaker after speaker spoke of their grievances at being suspended and in some cases expelled from the party. The atmosphere was becoming uneasy for some who are not used to such forthright street politics but in truth I had no problem as they were merely shouting out what they had to say but then a young woman went along the queue asking us to sign a Momentum petition for mandatory deselection of Labour Members of Parliament. When she asked me I had to decline, telling her that I would not sign because I did not believe that such a rule change was desirable.

Unfortunately the young lady then became very abusive stating with increasing decibels that I was obviously a Blairite in favour of government cuts and that there would be a purge of Labour members like me from the party (she could see my conference pass slung around my neck). I should have known better but I responded that just because a Labour Party member does not agree with a particular point of view does not mean that they should be shouted at and hounded out of the party but she would not have it. I did not wish to prolong the encounter and luckily we then realised that queuing to get in to the building would not be successful and a gentle tug on my arm by my wife who cleverly made the suggestion that we go for a beer. She knows me well only to well; with the merest hint of a beer I am as predictable as Pavlov's dog.

I do however have real fear that there are many who support mandatory deselection of out of favour MP's but also a purge of members who did not vote for Jeremy. Only last week I had 2 young local members asking me why I bothered to stay in Labour if I did not support Jeremy (I hasten to add that this is not typical of my fellow branch members). I also saw evidence within the conference hall itself of a certain ......... shall we call it a distance ......... between the traditional Labour members and the new entrants. In one case I saw an elderly black lady who seemed quite upset being told by a young man that she should not be so insulting to him on account of his youth. I did not see the start of that altercation but there really does seem to be a disconnect between parts of our party. 

Don't get the impression that it was all young against the old, far from it. I was talking with a shop steward in the bar of my hotel, a man about the same age as me who, when learning that I had not voted for Jeremy said that he could no longer talk with one such as me and promptly walked away to the other end of the bar. To his credit he returned 10 minutes later to apologise for his behaviour saying that he needed some time to get his head straight. I subsequently bumped into him at fringe meetings and then again at breakfast in the hotel and we were comradely to the point of enjoying each others company. We neither of us could understand why this rift within the party has developed or how we ourselves could become infected by it.

I spoke with many at the conference who were similarly bemused and were tentatively reaching out for some assurances that they were still valued as members of the party. I soon became adept at working out who had voted for Owen Smith or even abstained from voting in the leadership election because on first meeting there would be a degree of evasiveness before they would talk freely about their views. There was no hostility towards Jeremy but they all had deep concerns about the electability of Labour. I listened carefully to what each of them had to say and again and again it was the same story, that we were losing our core Labour support and therefore becoming a party that could not get into government ............. that the fervent Corbyn supporters were blind to this. I encountered this from average members such as myself to "beleaguered" senior local councillors.

I really am sorry if anyone has been offended by this post. Looking deeply inside myself I can genuinely say that I don't have a problem with any of the people I have mentioned. We each try to make meaning out of this confusing world whilst we are fed so much disinformation. Is it any wonder that when a strong clear message of hope comes along there are many who grasp it out of desperation. Thinking of that young woman who condemned me as a Blairite, a name that has now become shorthand for all the ills they perceive in the party, thinking of her I have to say that I admire her enthusiasm and the desire to act. We should be very thankful that there are still people who care enough that they give up their free time to pursue and oppose the injustices that best our society. We just have to work our way through these current difficulties and then I am sure that we will once again be on an upward trajectory.

That phrase from Saturday night keeps whispering in my head:

Love banishes fear

A week later and a late addition. I chanced upon a thought provoking article by Sarah Ditum which really got me thinking about my own views:

Labour can't solve its anti-semitism problem until it understands why the left needs to blame the Jews

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