Resolved to stay

Rossana Leal, first-time delegate to the 2021 Labour Party Conference offers some personal thoughts on what she experienced and witnessed – including a remarkable meeting that transported her back over forty years.

I was privileged to have been delegated to take part and represent my local CLP at the 2021 Labour Party Conference. Mandated to support our housing motion, I was excited to be taking part in a national conference with Party people from all over the UK, the whole experience, completely new to me.

We began receiving emails and links to documents to read through, which had no meaning to a first-time delegate. I sought advice from my local neighbour, fellow delegate and longer-time member of the Party, who very kindly hosted a meeting with all the delegates so we could get organised and went through the agenda and what it could all possibly mean. Policy documents, voting, speeches, motions, standing orders, rule changes, union votes, CAC reports – I did wonder how accessible all of this was to someone working full time, on a low wage, trying to keep food on the table and a family safe.

On our first day at Conference, Margaret Beckett set the scene and if I had been more experienced at this kind of thing, I might have understood then how things were going to go from there. Asking the floor if they agreed with the NEC Report, not looking up and with a wave of her hand announcing we were moving on – it was shocking. Even for a first-time delegate, I knew there was something not quite right about not taking a vote. She went on to ignore call after call for points of order and explanations on the rules, saying she was saving us time to discuss things such as violence against women.

That same evening, I took part in my first ‘Composite’ meeting for a motion on housing. For those of you, who like me, have no idea what this is, a composite meeting is where you discuss, debate and agree on one motion, made up of all the motions sent in from CLPs around the UK about housing.

My task, as mandated by our local CLP, was to get in as much of our local motion into the final document. Ready to make a big stand, I was slightly disappointed, that there was not much of a stand to make. Two major points from our local motion were already included. The meeting was chaired by the shadow housing minister Lucy Powell. The whole set-up of the room was top down, the panel on a stage and the delegates on the floor looking up at the panel, not really a set-up to truly discuss between us, as opposed to discuss with them.

On the second day, one of my fellow delegate’s credentials were ‘rescinded’ as we tried to enter Conference. She was told to stand aside and wait for the police to be called. As a steward ran around trying to find a police officer, we stood at a corner by the entrance asking why she needed to wait for the police and why were the police involved at all?

We stood at the side of the door wating for what seemed like ages. As we stood there, I felt frightened and protective of my fellow delegate. She put on a brave face, but she was clearly shaken. Two, extremely friendly police officers arrived and advised us they were going to radio in and find out if there was anything on my fellow candidate they should know – I actually don’t think they did this.

Finally, a young Conference organiser came to speak to us and asked my fellow delegate if she had not received the email? She went on to explain that calling the police was just normal procedure, at which point, the two police officers said goodbye and left.

My fellow delegate looked through her phone and found the email, sent late, the evening before, advising her that her application to attend the Conference had been rejected – even though she had received her credentials and attended the whole of day one. Later on she found that another had been sent six minutes earlier saying that she had been expelled (“auto-excluded”).

I called the rest of our delegation out to discuss how to proceed. We were all in shock at this aggressive treatment, but made sure that she was OK and surrounded by her friends.  

We made our way back into the conference to the debate on rule changes, with speaker after speaker in favour claiming the Party would be protected against anti-Semitism and anti-LGBTI sentiment. Others argued that the rule changes were designed to give Keir Starmer more power.

Some of us were confused by the arguments, as, obviously we agreed with the importance of having procedures to fight anti-Semitism. However, having just experienced the cruel treatment of someone we all know to be a lifelong socialist, Jewish campaigner against anti-Semitism and racism, it really felt like this rule was being introduced to crack down on socialists and bring back the right wing.

Our Hastings & Rye CLP delegation picture, take outside Conference, after our fellow delegate had her pass rescinded.

That same day, I had arranged to meet Nicky Wilson, President of the National Union of Mineworkers. Ever since arriving in Hastings in 2015, I have felt like a reluctant traveller in a personal journey I seem to have no control over. In my aim to set up a refugee buddy project, here in Hastings, a project that would replicate the warm welcome my parents, and my family had received on arrival in Cowdenbeath, Fife, by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1977, I have been taken back to a time when I finally felt safe after a long journey seeking refuge.

It was a journey which had begun in Chile, after my father had been arrested, tortured and released by the Chilean military and my mum had been told ‘they’ were coming for her. It took us through Argentina, London and finally to Scotland, the ‘land where giant men wear skirts’ as my mum told us in preparation for this magical journey. I describe our arrival in a story you can find here: The Land Where Giant Men Wear Skirts.

We arrived at a house, where a delegation of local people waited for us outside.

Scottish bagpipers were playing to welcome us, headed by a rosy-cheeked, blond woman, wearing a tartan kilt – like a real life doll – who handed the keys to the house to my mum. My mum opened the door and we entered a house that had been completely furnished and prepared for us by local people. They showed us around and sat us down to eat a warm meal which I later found out had been prepared by a Chilean woman who was part of another Chilean family already living in the area.

I now know that this house was kitted out by donations, and volunteers who all gave their time and love to make us welcome. I will never forget the smell of the clean sheets, the comfortable bed as I fell asleep that night, feeling safe for the first time in what seemed like a long time.

We were quickly enrolled in local schools and my parents began to learn English in nearby Edinburgh. Our house was always busy with local visitors who came to see us, offer help or just be nosey. The coal sheds were in the front of the gardens and every time we took coal out to light a fire, the coal was very quickly replaced by an anonymous person. Our coal shed was always full.

My new friend Corinne invited me to join the Majorettes and I was soon marching along at the local miners’ galas.”

And this is the journey that took me to the meeting with Nicky Wilson at Party Conference.

With both my parents now gone, I have only my memories and the many photographs taken at so many socials at our house in Edinburgh. Looking through these photographs I found one, where you can see my mum and dad, Johnny Neilson and his wife, described above as the ‘rosy-cheeked, blond woman, wearing a tartan kilt -like a real life dollboth remembered fondly by my family.

Standing at the back, left to right: my mum Sonial Riquleme, Jonny Neilson and my dad Ernesto Leal

Sitting: April and Jimmy Young and the blond woman is Jonny Neilson’s wife.

I didn’t know the names of the second couple though, and it became really urgent for me, and my story to find out who these kind people were. They often turned up in one car, unannounced, at the house we lived in, in Edinburgh, to see my parents, essentially to make sure we were all fine. They would all eat, drink and socialise and there was a lot of laughter and dancing. Then, they would leave, till the next time. I don’t think they ever really knew how much these visits helped my mum and dad. These moments of friendship and solidarity helped my parents cope with their loss.

A couple of years ago, I had shared a panel with John Keenan who told me he knew Jonny Neilson. John Keenan, himself a trade union hero, a giant of the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride, refused to work on Chilean Air Force parts from 1974-78, due to the atrocities carried out in Chile by the Pinochet dictatorship. This story is told in the film Nae Pasaran.

John Keenan sent the photograph to Nicky who was able to identify the second couple. Nicky told John he had also known them personally. And so, the urgency of meeting him became real. He was perhaps the only link to the people in that photograph. In a telephone call, Nicky told me none of the people in the photograph were around anymore. I had expected this, but it still made me angry at myself for not doing this sooner. It was coincidence that we would both be delegates to the Conference, so it seemed the best place for us to meet.

I wanted to tell Nicky how grateful my parents had been for everything the miners did for my family. I told him that the refugee buddy project I run here in Hastings is inspired by the warmth of the community welcome the miners had given us when we arrived in Cowdenbeath all those years ago. I told him that my father had cried when Thatcher got into power and how we stood in solidarity with the miners when they had to fight for their community. I told him that I now know that it had been the trade union movement who had pressured governments to take Chilean refugees, that without this pressure, we might never have found refuge and safety, and that this is why today, I stand with refugees and campaign for refugee and migrant rights.

Nicky told me that Jonny and others were known for their internationalism and solidarity with working class causes in other countries and that the miners had always stood with workers from other countries. We all agreed it is important to tell this story of solidarity. This meeting was the perfect antidote to help me deal with the aggression I had experienced that morning and treatment of my fellow delegate.

Nicky Wilson, President of the National Union of Miners, Rossana Leal, Hastings & Rye CLP delegate to the 2021 Party Conference and Chris Kitchen, General Secretary NUM. Photo credit: Sean Jordan

I went back to Conference for the next three days to experience a wealth of political discussion divided between the right and the left of the Labour Party – inspirational speaker after speaker making the argument for a real stand in defence of the NHS, for more social housing, supporting the BLM movement, speaking out about violence against women, speaking up for Palestine, for refugees. Yes, the right wing were there en masse, directed from the stage, but the Conference floor was clearly left.

Both myself and one other fellow delegate were verbally threatened and abused by right wingers, clearly there to intimidate. But we didn’t take the bait. In fact, the last time I had been intimidated like this, was by Pinochet supporters outside the Chilean embassy, who shouted racist and horrific insults at us, including, “We should have killed you all.”

Then on the final day Keir Starmer made his big Conference speech, introduced by Baroness Doreen Lawrence. I felt very uncomfortable with Keir Starmer’s use of grieving mothers for political ends, mothers whom he came into contact with while doing his job as a former barrister. The barrister-client relationship surely exists within the confines of professional boundaries and is sacrosanct. For him to have asked Baroness Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, murdered in a racist attack and Penny Clough, the mother of Jane Clough, murdered by her former partner, to feature in his speech, seems to me to be unethical and exploitative of their situations. If he was hoping that their presence would serve to cast him in a heroic light, it did not work on me.

The rest of his speech seemed to be a carefully curated narrative, based on PR and selective focus group advice, rather than having the substance that I was looking for to truly challenge the Tories.

While I joined the Labour Party to support the Jeremy Corbyn campaign, I see myself as a longstanding supporter, beneficiary and indeed, victim of Labour Party policies. I joined full of hope that the JC agenda would truly challenge the economic model that results in the everyday aggressions suffered by the majority of people living in the UK – the degradation of having to go to a food bank, the anxiety of debt and having to make decisions about paying your bills or your rent or feeding your family – the zero hours contracts, poverty wages, unaffordable housing, the absolute inhumane way in which people seeking refuge are treated today.

We have a right to express ourselves within the Labour Party family. It is those who were intimidating people who have no place in the Party. We are not alone, and the struggle is not just about now: it has a history of people making a stand for social justice, and, as someone who thought the Conference would be the nail in the coffin for my membership of the Party, I have come back, resolved to stay.

Rossana Leal is a member of Hastings and Rye CLP and runs Rother Buddy Refugee Project.

Image: Party Conference 2021, by Emma Tait.

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