Banbury Constituency Labour Party

Sylvia’s Conference Blog 2016


Sylvia Howells

Sylvia Howells







Tuesday 27th & Wednesdsay 28th September

conference-2016Talking with our Youth delegate Joe Walsh, we reflected that Tuesday and Wednesday at conference were both concerning and uplifting at the same time. Yesterday morning, the atmosphere in the Hall was a tad fractious yet it started on a really positive note. For the first time, in 10 years the Party is debt free and sitting on a surplus of £5m, partly down to the growth in membership over the last year and a half. A cause for celebration so who would have thought that a debate on proposed NEC and CLP rule changes could generate so much heat?

On Sunday apparently, the NEC had agreed an assortment of rule changes, few of which showed much relationship from one to another. Yet the Conference Arrangements Committee insisted they be voted for or against on an all or nothing basis. Delegates were upset and speaker after speaker demanded that reference backs on points related to the CAC Report be voted upon individually. I’m no expert on procedure but the Delegates Report issued to all of us clearly states that a ‘part of a report’ can be referred back to CAC. A CLP amendment to the rules from Sheffield Heeley writing this explicitly into the rule book was agreed by delegates against the recommendation of NEC but clearly won’t apply until 2017 Conference.

On the plus side, Conference approved an Annual Womens Conference with a formal role in policymaking in its own right from next year! And after all this, Paul Flynn – a beneficiary of Jeremy’s geriatric job creation scheme as he put it – and a great friend of Banbury & Bicester Labour, delivered a short but really inspiring and admonitory speech calling on all of us not to let down the generations who gave us the heritage of socialist advancement after the 2nd World War through self-defeating disunity. On the positive side, I met Sue from Banbury Branch and together we collared Jeremy for a picture for this blog. How could he refuse?

Sue, Jeremy & Sylvia

Sue, Jeremy & Sylvia

After all that, it was a pleasure to meet up with Veronica Treacher from Henley CLP at one of the fringe events, in the course of which we met actor Paul McGann (Dr Who) who promised us a signed photo each for fund raising purposes. So not a bad end to a mixed bag of a day.

Fortunately, today was uplifting. The mood was positive and we got back to focusing on what we should be doing – fighting the Tories. Great speeches, by Andy Burnham whose work on Hillsborough shows as he pointed out just what protest and real campaigning can do, and from Alf Dubs and Yvette Cooper continuing their commitment to forcing the Tory Government to accommodate refugee children at risk in the Calais camp as they promised.

Thinking about Jeremy’s address to Conference, the policy platform is one we can all support – whichever wing of the party we inhabit. Socialism for the 21st Century sounded about right and the enthusiasm of the delegates in the Hall was clear and genuine.

The things that struck me were first that JC is growing into the Leaders role. As a backbencher for so long it’s not surprising that the learning curve is steep. This speech was confident and far more assured – winning for a second time seems to have helped in that department. Yes, some of the edges are a bit rough but having met him, I hope he won’t become a ‘smooth’ political professional, the rough edges are what helps him relate to people. And as he said, it’s not about him – it is about the party first and foremost. Secondly, he makes it perfectly clear that he is committed to getting the party back into power; he wants us to protest against the impact of Tory policies and campaign against them too – the irrelevant and ill thought out Grammar School proposal being a good example. But the only way to make effective and long lasting change is to win power and implement the policies we’re developing – that’s what the party came into being to do after all. Finally, and contrary to the accepted wisdom, he is clearly beginning to fancy the role of Prime Minister and as I said yesterday, it seems the media are beginning to contemplate the idea.

Monday 26th September

conference-2016-economy-debateA big day today – the Labour economic team’s presentation to conference. The content has been well trailed and reported by now, although how accurate a representation the media makes of it is anyone’s guess. I’ll return to it later in this blog but first some impressions of the day from the floor.

The first thing that strikes me is how good the ‘stand in’ shadow ministerial team actually are – confident, articulate, and in control of their subjects. Starting with the International Team before the Economy debate, Barry Gardiner in particular – not a household name by any means – was a breath of fresh air. And what I took away from this was the depth of ability which may have been hidden from view until now. But it’s wrong to pick one out from a team that has obviously taken to responsibility with relish. And I guess that’s the point. The shadow ministers who resigned a couple of months ago appear not have been missed by the majority of delegates and members attending. What people are saying is that it is the policies that matter, not the personalities. Today’s speakers including Barry, Kate Osamor, Emily Thornberry and Becky Long-Bailey illustrating the point perfectly.

Kate for example, made the point that while we have been helping build hospitals in Yemen through our International Aid budget, the Tory Government has been selling arms to Saudi Arabia who have been using them to bomb the very hospitals we’ve helped to build. You just couldn’t make this nonsense up! On the positive side, Debbie Abrahams made a clear commitment to scrap the Work Capability Assessment.

But I have to mention Len McCluskey’s contribution too, Yes, he’s been around the block a few times but his Harold Wilson quote was pretty sharp and to the point – ‘if Labour is not a moral crusade then we are nothing’, power without principles is meaningless! And quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V – ‘If you do not have the stomach for this fight, depart the battlefield’. Stirring stuff.

And this leads on to the second thing that occurred to me. The level of growing enthusiasm of delegates, not just from this conference alone or simply from Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, though that has helped. Talking to a delegate from another solid Tory heartland – Sutton Coldfield – and comparing experiences at local level for example, it’s clear that the Tories are struggling to put people on the ground compared to Labour and in his case, this had resulted in election of a Labour Councillor in his ward for the first time. The ability to deliver more widely and often as a result of increasing membership affords the opportunity to get more involved in finding and tackling local issues.

The third thing which struck me today was that there appears to have been a sea change, or at least the appearance of one, in the media’s representation of Labour’s chances of winning the next election and the atmosphere around the delegates. Nick Robinson for example, suggested today that it was “time to take the possibility of @jeremycorbyn becoming PM seriously. Too many believing that defeat at hands of PLP or electorate inevitable.” While James O’Brien – no Corbyn fan – suggests that its time for media bias against Corbyn to end since he is now the only alternative PM to Theresa May. Winning the leadership election seems to have shifted the debate but beware Greeks bearing gifts as far as the media is concerned.

And to reinforce the point, John McDonnell’s speech as well as those of the whole Shadow Treasury Team was full of progressive policies which will find their way into our national campaigning for the next 4 years. From a £10/hour real living wage to a recognition that the rules of the global economy are being rewritten in practice from belief in the unfettered free market to intervention by Governments around the world. The policies he outlined will end up in our manifesto whenever the election is called – as he said, Theresa May has ruled out a quick election but never trust a Tory. But the hall got to its feet when, after recounting the fact that he was born in Liverpool, John referenced John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ to set out a vision of a radically transformed Britain and the fact that we no longer had to whisper the word Socialism any more. That’s what we are about when all is said and done.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Accosted by Victoria Derbyshire on the way into Conference I was asked what I wanted from the Conference in general and the leadership election in particular. My response – an end to the leadership process at last and a desire that everyone line up behind the leader whoever it was (though hopefully Jeremy Corbyn in my case) – never made the cut. Perhaps my suggestion that the members didn’t choose the process but having been given the opportunity to vote, the party should respect the result whatever it was didn’t square with the ‘angle’ she wanted. Who knows? Perhaps the Dutch journalist who asked me the same questions will be more obliging but his copy probably won’t reach the UK.

On Saturday morning the results of the leadership election confirmed Jeremy Corbyn as Leader, and at the Womens Conference following the announcement, heart rending and poignant tributes to Jo Cox underlined the fragility of principle in the face of intolerance and bigotry. The relief that the issue of the leadership was settled contrasting with the death of a staunch defender of human rights and the dispossessed, not least when a video about Jo, produced by the Labour Womens Network, reduced many of us to tears.

Over 1500 women were registered on the Womens Conference, and it’s amazing to report that on a show of hands, not only were 50% new members but also that they had never been to any such Conference or event before! Remember Banbury and Bicester CLP’s request that a bursary in Jo Cox’s name be encouraged to encourage and train more women to engage in local and national politics? I am pleased to report that our Leader and the NEC has agreed that such a bursary is now to be established and that this was announced at Conference.

Womens Conference also expressed the fear that all our hard won campaigns to fight for rights of women might disappear following Brexit, the new Tory PM being no supporter of women’s rights and had voted against the Equality Act.

Angela Rayner’s speech was inspiring. Her mum was one of 12 children and still can’t read or write and despite Angela’s almost equally tough upbringing, state intervention and the advancement of equal rights, combined with her mum’s insistence that she was as good as anyone else helped Angela become an MP and now Shadow Equalities Minister. Bottom line? We shouldn’t stop fighting for equal rights.

And then, in the afternoon, a surprising response to Jeremy’s leadership success. My husband Chris, a lifelong Liverpool FC supporter witnessed the unfurling of a banner at the Kop end of Anfield during the match against Hull – displayed tonight at the ‘Jeremy for PM’ stand up show.


The crowd response was fascinating – a standing ovation no less. (At least until Liverpool scored their 3rd goal). Add to that a 5-1 win for Liverpool and that was one happy hubbie.

Today it was down to business. Joe Walsh and I went through the list of contemporary motions for ballot and agreed to vote for CLP motions Brexit, Grammar Schools, Housing and the NHS to be considered by Conference. The main sessions included Ian McNicol’s ‘state of the Party’ speech. He pointed out that back in 2006, the Party had debts of £25m but that by last year, the debts had been repaid and the influx of new members over the last 18 months has helped put the party in its strongest financial position in generations. We are now debt free and in good shape to fight an election whenever it’s called.

In the debates on Local Government & Communities and Transport, the detail was less important than the atmosphere. A general desire for the party to unite and get behind both the leadership and the policies being promoted – on Housing, Communities the Environment and Transport, all of which could be supported by all the delegates in the hall – but an underlying fear that this might not happen and a sense of frustration and potential anger with the PLP if it didn’t!