“We must now find new ways to organise”

Carl Walker, Hilary Schan Martyn and Emma Taylor report on Labour’s South East Regional Conference

The Labour Party has of late become a tricky place to have reasoned political debate and critique. One of the most insidious impacts of the various forms of proscription and silencing is the self-censorship it can produce in members who are unsure what they can say and to whom. We’re writing this review under the premise that constructive political reflection is still considered a good thing.

At the end of November, we attended South East Regional Conference in Reading, Berkshire. Still feeling somewhat battered by Annual Conference two months previous, we proceeded with some trepidation. We are pleased to report however, that the event was largely free of overt factional gamesmanship and overall, a more unifying experience for the range of members in attendance.

The agenda consisted of the usual mixture of MPs’ speeches, training breakouts and space for the debating of motions. Although, as we’ll explore, there were some real highlights in terms of breakouts run by local Reading members, and excellent left wing policies passed, we were left with the lingering feeling that there may be more invigorating ways of ensuring member involvement. The Conference Arrangements Committee need only look to the excellent World Transformed festival, which runs alongside Annual Conference each year, for tips on how to energize and engage members.

So, to the highlights:

  • Tan Dhesi MP gave the standout speech, referencing the 2017 and 2019 policies of nationalising the railways and the cancelling of university tuition fees.
  • Luke Pollard MP gave a spirited talk on the environment, food systems and food security (although perhaps not all agreed by the leadership, as he lost his shadow cabinet seat in the following week’s reshuffle).
  • Motions passed included the Right to Food being embedded in national policy, a restated call for the social housing pledge from 2019, a National Care Service, publicly owned rail services, nationalised water ownership, making misogyny a hate crime and extending sick pay to the self-employed.

Despite only two and a half hours across the entire Conference for members to speak on 15 motions, it’s fair to say that most of the motions put forward by unions and members would be described by many as radical left wing, socialist policies, however much they may have been embedded in mainstream political discourse in generations gone by. This is not a great surprise given that YouGov data shows that many members consider themselves to the left of Starmer. For delegates on the left, watching these motions unanimously voted for was encouraging, as we know they resonate not just with members, but with many voters too.

A recent survey by RAND showed “that a majority among all sections of the public – across age groups, income groups, employment status, health status and the four countries of the UK – see adult social care as a collective responsibility.” In 2019, most people also supported nationalising the railways (56%) and water companies (53%). Whisper it, but the electorate of this country see the sense in bold, socialist policies to reverse the carnage of our generations-long neoliberal coma.

We hear often that the left is the only source of credible ideas but, time and again at Annual Conference, Women’s Conference and Regional Conferences, the left shows they can remain strong in influencing the direction of Labour Party policy. To further solidify this however, we must now find new ways to organise, across regions, to build platforms to ensure that the socialist policies passed at these conferences stay at the forefront of members’ thinking and build concerted pressure to ensure they make it into the next Labour manifesto. The three of us will be working to do this with our ‘Right to Food’ motion, one of those passed in Reading. Passing such motions must be seen as the start of the fight to bring these policies to the mainstream, rather than the end.

Another highlight of the conference was a breakout talk on ‘Radical Reading’, run by local members and councillors, who gave many inspiring examples of socialism in action. Labour have held Reading Council since the 1980s, bar 2010 when there was a Lib Dem/Con coalition.

The city has a great radical history and is known for Huntley and Palmers Biscuit Factory, founded in 1822, and the scene of a 1916 action by women and girl workers at the factory, who spoiled the biscuit mixture and threw it in the river, in protest at being paid less than men. As a result, they secured a pay increase, although were still not paid the same… Reading holds an annual re-enactment of the strike as a way of highlighting how the past is still relevant today.

Cllr Alice Mpofu-Coles told of how she arrived in Reading as a refugee in 2005 and is now a Researcher at the University as well as a social worker, social justice activist and motivational speaker. Alice spoke of the city, council and University all becoming registered Places of Sanctuary, making clear that refugees are welcome. Cllr Ellie Henderson, Head of Housing, explained how the council have made use of an old car park near the station to provide 40 modular homes and commissioned St Mungo’s to supervise and run the scheme. Occupants have round the clock support to help them to feel safe and get any additional support they need to get back on their feet. Having their own front door to a well-equipped, self-contained home was described as a dream come true. The scheme has resulted in money being saved on emergency temporary accommodation bills and, more importantly, people have been given their dignity.

Attendees were encouraged to look for similar parallels in their own towns and cities. We’re a little biased but being from Worthing, we didn’t have to look far. Locally since 2017, we have gone from not having a single Labour councillor for 40 years, to now having 17, and we stand poised to take the council from a moribund Tory administration in May.

This wouldn’t have been possible without the influx of membership in 2016 under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which brought with it swathes of ideas and energy. Moreover, this has been supplemented by the local “socialism in action” work in the town, where Labour members and councillors have led unprecedented outward-facing community activism and campaigning. We have transformed our town through mutual aid groups, community support groups, community cafes, a school uniform swap shop, non-referral foodbanks and all year-round campaigning on the doorstep. We have proven that socialism can transform local communities, and this is where the left need to look to make impact and build from the grassroots up.

At a time when the Party machine is being dominated by the right, this is particularly important. The South East Regional Executive Committee elections, which were announced on the last day of conference, proved this once again to be the case. The right swept the board, except for in West Sussex, where two left wing delegates (co-authors of this article) were elected. Luckily the results were read to a hall only 2/3s full, as the equivocal delights of the Wes Streeting-starring conference dinner had clearly taken a toll on the more excitable revellers.

So, all in all it was a mixed conference for the left. In terms of the future for the South East region and where we can maximise our impact, we need to look to the examples of Reading and Worthing, to organise locally and build networks of likeminded activists. This conference showed that the left is winning in the key battle ground of ideas, policies and developing innovative models for community-based politics. We just need to focus on keep our members, organising, innovating, and campaigning, and we can continue to play an important role in the Party, at what is undoubtedly a challenging time.

Carl Walker is deputy leader of the Labour Group on Worthing Council and Community Campaigns lead in East Worthing and Shoreham CLP. Hilary Schan Martyn is Vice Chair Campaigns in East Worthing and Shoreham CLP. Emma Taylor is the Housing lead on Worthing Labour Group and a member of Worthing West CLP. Carl Walker and Hilary Schan Martyn are now the West Sussex reps on the South East Regional Executive Committee.

Image: South East England. Map. Source: Image:South_East_England_map.png (previous version) and http://www.openstreetmap.org. Author: Travelpleb, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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