Sunday 28 September 2014

Rise like lions? Mrs Angry goes to the Labour Conference, and is disappointed

The weight of history, in Manchester, bears down heavily on the city, eloquent in the architecture of the built heritage, a wealth of buildings paid for by the profits of Cottonopolis: the Town Hall, the Central Library, the Exchange: and the less grand but still imposing legacy of the cotton industry, expressed in more functional structures. 

Mrs Angry's hotel, for example, was a former warehouse, as documented by a worn inscription beside an entrance still marked with the name of the company that once traded there. 

The history of Manchester, held fast in the stonework and bricks of the buildings of the city centre, is now put to use just as relentlessly as the workers who once toiled in the mills here: the looms may have stopped, but the machinery of profit grinds on, and now property development is the overseer. 

Warehouses become hotels, banks become restaurants and bars: leisure and tourism, the self indulgence of the bourgeoisie, have taken the place of manufacture and industry.

And as part of the new culture of corporate hospitality, the Conference Centre, round the back of Peter Street, regularly performs its duty as the venue for the Labour party, in annual navel gazing mode.

The Labour conference provides an open opportunity, for all members who can afford the vast expense, to engage in a wider debate, or what passes for it, of the policies and ambitions that we hope will drive the next Labour government. Well, that is the idea, anyway, or was.

Let a great Assembly be 
Of the fearless and the free 
On some spot of English ground 
Where the plains stretch wide around.

Mrs Angry arrived in Manchester on Sunday, and wandered into the conference centre, passing, outside the security zone, two demonstrations, one against fracking, the other in support of our NHS.

Throughout the days of the conference there are what appears to be a diminishing number of protestors, campaigners and activists, standing by the turnstiles, trying to press into the hands of those with passes a number of leaflets lobbying for all sorts of desperately important causes, begging for attention like petitioners of the jaded nobility wandering up the steps, into the long mirrored corridors of a royal palace.

In the centre itself, a market place of stalls awaited the conference attendees: worthy bodies like the Howard League, and various unions, and the sort of organisations you might expect to see at a left of centre political event, and rather more random enterprises: a phosphate mining company, CAMRA and ... a company offering public convenience provision. Useful for the public sector commissioning councils wishing, and probably failing, to organise a piss up in a brewery, in short.

The only stall that offered anything other than leaflets and free biros - (Mrs Angry's friend Councillor Dr Kay managed to acquire a collection of 38, which we admired, one by one, on the train journey back to Euston) - was the political bookshop, on whose table proudly stood a pile of discounted books, for the less discerning reader and/or any MP thinking of joining UKIP:

The debate that was in progress in the hall was on the subject of education. A number of delegates spoke passionately about the impact of government experimentation on schools, and the way in which now education is becoming a privilege, not a right. 

Shadow minister Tristram Hunt made a fairly feeble speech, starting, as one might have hoped from an historian, with a reference to Manchester's Chartist schools, the history of the Mechanics Institute, co-operative schools, and the Workers Educational Trust. Education, he said, was a moral calling, and teaching the surest way to social mobility. Indeed it is, and on grounds of evading the call of morality and the obstruction of social mobility alone, must be interfered with by our Tory masters, of course.

Equalities next. Joanna Baxter, speaking in a quavering voice, still wrestling with the intense emotions of the Scottish referendum, and keen for us to understand the wider message of the campaign, and its result: that the people who voted 'yes' were doing so because they were offered hope - and Labour must learn from this, and offer this very thing, must become the party that offers change, that empowers, and inspires. Quite, thought Mrs Angry. 

Wandering out of the hall, through the stalls, there was one welcome sight: the People's History Museum, with a range of material for sale, including a short history of the Peterloo Massacre.

This event took place on the very ground beneath our feet, on St Peter's Fields, nearly two hundred years ago - ground spattered then with the blood of working class heroes - and heroines - now covered by a pair of luxury hotels and an enormous corporate conference centre. The gathering place of rebellious workers now resounding with the whispers of spin doctors, rather than the protest of spinners, and the chattering of media, the twittering of politicians, instead of the clattering of the cotton mills.

Later that night, Mrs Angry wandered along from her hotel room in the eaves of George Fraser and Sons warehouse, on Portland Street, to the grandeur of the Midland Hotel (where, comrades, Tory blogger Barnet Bugle accidentally bought Mrs Angry a glass of champagne, in honour of her preferred shade of socialism). Passing her on the way there, creeping along in the shadows of the Midland, a few seconds apart, their faces momentarily illuminated by a street light, was first Hilary Benn (poor man, whose picture with Mrs Angry on google image for some reason has been tagged 'Mr and Mrs Eric Pickles' ...) and then Andy Burnham: both of them looked pretty glum. Who could blame them?

Walking back late at night revealed a rather different side to the city: beggars soliciting for change outside the Midland and Radisson: a homeless man sleeping in a doorway,  open drug dealing down side streets, another man begging on his knees outside a shop, being patronised by a group of drunken men with conference passes round their necks.

Arriving at the conference hall next morning, with perfect timing, Mrs Angry managed to miss all but the last few words of Chuka Umunna's speech, and settle down to listen to the rather more inspiring thoughts of Unite's Len McCluskey. 

McCluskey was another speaker seizing on the result of the referendum to try to persuade the Labour leadership that it must change the course of its campaigning back to traditional party voters, ordinary working people whose interests were being ignored by all the main parties. 

Ignore them at your peril, he warned Labour. 

He dismissed the pundits in our own party who said class didn't matter, and rejected the idea of a constitution made by posh boys at Chequers. 

He called on the party to mobilise the imagination and aspiration of members determined to defeat the ruinouse coalition. 

As he always does, he received a standing ovation, furious applause from the vast majority of members in the hall: a fact that ought to worry the leadership, sitting nicely, with tight smiles on the platform, careful not to appear supportive of any controversial statement by a speaker who does not obey the rules and conventions of the offical party line of approved opinion.

The chair of this plenary session was the insufferably patronising Keith Vaz, * whose air of noblesse oblige never ceases to amuse Mrs Angry, in this instance particularly enjoyable was the patrician tone of his exortations to 'comrades' and 'sisters' to wind up their speeches and clear off the stage. 

 (*Note for Labour members and readers suffering from Catholic guilt: as in plenary indulgence, attendance equating to a penance necessary for the remission of sins)

At this point, Mrs Angry's attention, wandering as usual, was caught by a familiar sight: the figure of a woman, deathly pale and quiet, her hair coiled in an old fashioned french pleat, carefully slipping into a seat, dressed entirely in an outfit from the 1940s: linen suit, stockings, and a pill box hat, in straw, balanced at a slanting angle on her head. This woman was at the last Manchester conference too: solitary, silent, looking on, and Mrs Angry had the idea she might be a ghost: a manifestation of the past,bearing witness to the time when Labour had its finest moment, making real social progress in radical change, in the creation of a welfare state, a national health service, and the provision of a fair system of education for all. The conscience of the party, perhaps, up in the balcony, looking on in a state of unease.

Another ghost from another era, also dressed in vintage costume: Margaret Beckett, in one of her shiny eighties suits, delivering a starchy warning that the Tories were about to ramp up a campaign of smears and insults levelled at Labour policies, added and abetted by the media, willing to join in, because 'it's so much more fun' than reporting the truth. Isn't it, though? Especially as the truth is so hard to define, Margaret, so carefully spun, and lost in the warp and weft of the utterances of party leaders.

Try as she might, Mrs Angry had mistimed her arrival in the hall, aided and abetted by Comrade Chair Keith Vaz, who had, in his role of benevolent dictator, allowed proceedings to overrun by 25 minutes - and oh, dear, next up was Ed Balls.

He was pro business, Balls said, but not business as usual. 

He wanted, he added, to have an economy that works for - can you guess? The many, not the few. 

Ye are many - they are few ... sounds familiar.

He made a show of learning from 'our' mistakes, and listed the pledges he and the Labour party would make to the British people. As he did so, the reaction from those seated in the balcony area was less than rapturous. Some were muttering, for example, when he said that Labour won't pay for new free schools - in areas where there are extra places. In other words, they will pay for new free schools in other areas. Capping social security funding didn't go down awfully well, either. A man sitting next to Mrs Angry sat throughout the becoming increasingly impatient, refusing to clap, and staying seated at the end, with a mutinous expression on his face. Others were more polite, but unmoved. It was a disappointing speech. Ed Miliband, who sat turned towards his colleague, in a pose of absolutely rigid attentiveness, remained pretty much the same, although dutifully applauding with outspread hands, like a seal at the circus. Oh dear, thought Mrs Angry.

In truth, what is said by the shadow ministers on the stage of the conference hall is an irrelevance. The next day you can buy a copy of their speeches for a quid, if you are desperate: might as well sell them beforehand, and save people the bother of listening to it. The really interesting contributions are from the delegates who speak, and of course in the fringe events, where real discussions can take place, and the most important part of attending is probably in the chance encounters and conversations with members whose experiences and views engage you in a real debate, and give a real insight into where we are now, as a party, and as a nation.

And many more Destructions played 
In this ghastly masquerade, 
All disguised, even to the eyes, 
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.

After an interesting evening wandering about looking for lost Northern MPs (must have gone to bed early, as perhaps so should have Mrs Angry) and bumping into an assortment of familiar faces, and party grandees, Mrs Angry was unexpectedly treated to a more intimate encounter with Ed Balls later that evening - thankfully not as intimate as those famous fantasies of the mumsnet blogger - (be warned, ladies: read at your own risk, and prepare never to want to have sex EVER again) ... 

No, this was at a private Cooperative do, the purpose of which escaped Mrs Angry, except that it was unlikely to have gained the approval of Robert Owen, and the Rochdale Pioneers, but gave a clearly relaxed shadow chancellor the opportunity to sing and - my eyes, my eyes - gyrate with a couple of over excited middle aged women on a wobbly dais in the Labourlist tent. Mrs Angry, of course, behaved with impeccable dignity, made her excuses, and left. 

The next day was the day of the Labour leader's speech. 

Readers may recall that Barnet Tories deliberately rearranged the date of a full council meeting, in defiance of all convention, to coincide with this date, so as to make a cheap political point in the nasty war against their opposition party, and to cover up the fact that the previous date, as in the official calendar, would have meant many of their own members would have been absent, being on holiday, or otherwise engaged. This is the problem of the new committee system in Barnet: presenting our usually indolent backbench Tories with the necessity of actually turning up for the meetings they are paid to attend on behalf of their residents.

Mrs Angry's view, and the view of many others, was that the meeting should have been boycotted by the party. Instead of this, no one from the Labour leadership came to conference this year, which was a shame, and other members were asked to make the journey back to Barnet, directly after the speech - and in some cases return again that night - a round trip of 400 miles. Rather ridiculous, you might think, especially for delegates who are paid to attend conference on behalf of their party.

Thankfully Sarah Sackman, the wonderful Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, was present, and spoke at conference about some of the successes we have been involved in during the course of our struggle with the shabby Tory administration: the reclamation of Friern Barnet Library, the protest against their removal of funding of respite care for the severely disabled children of Mapledown School, and the outrageous attempt to slash the already pitiful wages of care staff working for Your Choice Barnet. Sarah alluded to the legacy of Thatcherism, in her former constituency, and explained how her taunting claim that there was no such thing as 'society' was being exposed as a lie by the collective efforts of our community. 


The long queue for seats in the hall for the leader's speech is a traditional process, beginning after the morning session, always with queues stretching through the building, outside, and sometimes even coiled back again. Usually everyone gets in, eventually, and Mrs Angry and a contingent of people from Barnet were very well placed, within sight of the beginning of the line. A long two hours followed, eventually broken by the sound of applause as Ed Miliband and his wife entered the hall, and strode swiftly though the room, noticeably at a distance from the queue, and not looking in that direction. Odd, thought Mrs Angry: we have not even been seated yet. 

Then we noticed that on the screens he had started his speech. A rumour came down the line: we were not being allowed into the hall to hear it: there was no room. 

No one could believe it. At no point had any staff come down the line and warn of any likeliness that no one would get in: many of those who had queued were elderly, and had made huge efforts to wait patiently for such a long time: yet priority had been given to more favoured ticket holders, apart from delegates - including VIPs, ex MPs, celebs, all seen planted in the audience. 

Of course the people left standing pointlessly for two hours, and then kept out of the hall, when those arranging the seating must have known the unusually limited capacity would not accommodate them, are the people who will be expected to deliver victory for the party in May, campaigning, leafleting, doorknocking, canvassing: a gross miscalculation of priorities, but a symptom and symbol of the disconnection between the party leadership and the party membership.

The contigent from Barnet led a walkout of the proletariat into, well: the decadence of the Midland Hotel lobby, to sit in overupholstered sofas, watching the speech on screens. But there was nothing much to hear, and we left for the more congenial surroundings of an old pub, aptly named the Briton's Protection, to debate the events of the day, and the conference, before going back to the rather more useful and important fringe events elsewhere.

A story picked up by Guido Fawkes, originally reported in the Morning Star alleged that Bernadette Horton, a disabled member and mother of four, who tweets as @PinkWaferBelle, and blogs about the impact of austerity measures, had been forced from the row of seating reserved all conference for people with disability needs by party officials who insisted other party members needed to sit there. She and others were obliged to try to climb up the steep steps of the balcony: she tripped and fell. At the end of the speech, she noted:

... all became apparent as Ed Miliband and his wife Justine walked to the back of the hall and shook hands with the long line of party members sitting in the reserved seats. Of course Ed himself would have been oblivious to the fact we had been ousted from this area, and the feeling of somehow nthat it was truly a time for working class MPs who have compassion and the human touch to be elected to change the make up of the current establishment.ot being good enough or photogenic enough for the cameras following him pervaded our thoughts. 

Bernadette wrote a very interesting post about her experience at conference:

She had not been able to afford the expense of coming to Manchester, and had crowdfunded her way there. She intends to stand as a candidate in 2020, having concluded:

that it was truly a time for working class MPs who have compassion and the human touch to be  elected to change the make up of the current establishment.
She observed, as many others did, that the real benefit of attending the conference was in the ordinary people whose stories pay witness to the reality of what is happening to the most vulnerable people in our society: including the truly admirable 91 year old Harry Smith, whose address to conference was so moving. As she puts it:

... he weeps as he tells of his sister dying from TB aged 10 because there was no NHS. These speakers told the real stories of conference. The stories that were happening to ordinary people. To me these were far more important than any policy announcements taking place in the main hall as they told the real story of what is going on under the watch of Cameron's Britain.

Bernadette thanked the many people who had contributed funding to enable her to come to conference and hoped that something can be done to help improve access to ordinary party members in future:

I am eternally grateful to the many people ( including MPs) who put their hands in their pockets and paid for me to attend. I then began a campaign which I will continue to take up with Labour Gen Sec Iain McNicoll entitled #ForTheManyNotTheMoneyed

For the many, not the moneyed: for the many, not the few: ye are many, they are few.  

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.

Shelley wrote the ninety one verses of  The Masque of Anarchy in a storm of fury, his 'blood boiling with rage', after reading reports of the Peterloo massacre, enacted on the very soil beneath the secured territory of the Labour conference: around eighty thousand people, about half the population of the area around Manchester then, were present: men, women and children, on a beautiful summer's day, under a cloudless sky, to hold a peaceful protest, and to make a demand for representation in parliament.

Faced with what they viewed as an act of revolution, the authorities sent in the cavalry to charged the unarmed gathering. In the mayhem which ensued, including, it seems, an early example of kettling which undoubtedly led to a greater toll than would have otherwise been the case, eighteen were killed, and 653 people injured.

Peterloo ended in chaos, injury and loss of life, but the movement for reform began, and the fight for widespread franchise: the fight for democracy.

If you go to the fabulous People's History Museum, in Spinningfields, Manchester, you will find a fine collection of prints and cartoons depicting the events of Peterloo, and the consequent birth of a radical political movement in Britain - as well as the story of the Labour party.

Because, let's be honest: what happened on St Peter's Fields, in 1819, that moment of such significance, was never meant to evolve into the party we see now, back on the same sacred territory, locking the doors on its own members, accessible only to the privileged few who can afford the cost of attendance, not a venue encouraging real debate but one in which handpicked audiences dutifully attend the stage managed grandstanding of shadow ministers, and applaud the platitudes of a third rate speech by the party leader, and protestors are kept at bay not by charging cavalries, but behind a metal barrier manned by a privatised security company. 

The spinning of politicians has replaced the profits of Cottonopolis, and the annual conference brings in an estimated £25 million to the city of Manchester. 

Who knows how much the conference itself makes from the exorbitant charges to members, or the payments from lobbying companies keen to flog their wares on a stall in the centre, dangling temptations in the hands of potential commissioning public sector employers?

It is a real disgrace, on the ground where people paid with their lives for demanding a fairer society, and a voice in government, to see their cause, and the rights of the latterday workers, exploited just as much as they ever were, ignored, and excluded from the process of debate.

Peterloo, and the history of our struggle for democracy, a voice in government, and social justice may seem irrelevant to some people, and something to ignore. And this is exactly the mistake made by the leaders of the Labour movement today.

In his wonderful, unforgettable speech, dedicated to the threat to our NHS, Harry Smith, whose childhood and his unbearably vivid memories of the needless loss of his young sister, in the absence of the ability to pay for her recovery must have evoked the past of not just my family, but those of almost everyone listening, he pleaded that we should learn the lessons from the earlier era of austerity, otherwise, he warned, your future will be my past

My life is your history, he added: we should keep it that way.

We must repeat that truism again: those who forget the past are condemned to relive it: it's time for the Labour movement to take a look behind the scenes at the museum, remember the People's History, and remember who we were, where we come from, and think again about where we are going. 

An exhibit in the museum: the Beveridge Report


Anonymous said...

Oh MRS.A , I cannot tell you How disappointed I am . It's the same ole same ole ! Labour who in my opinion who always F. CK it up for themselves ! Because they can't pick a Leader ! & as seen today the Tories , who clap & cheer at any cuts this evil coalition can impose on the poor . Let me say you Quite rightly pointed out past History , peterloo massacre ! If we Don't have change from the main party's , who ever Gets in . By the next Election 2019 2020 , I will predict now that we will Not Be part of the EU & we will have either a Far Right or a far Left Government !!!

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Anon: conference was disappointing in some ways, but not in others ... the best thing is engaging with other people, and really one must ignore the pantomime on the conference stage.

And we must remember: whatever the failings of the Labour party, and the leadership, dear God: look at the alternative.

I trust Andy Burnham, and I think it a great shame Miliband did not come to the NHS rally in Trafalgar Square to stand beside him, to show his support, as the future of the NHS alone is of such signficance to the vast majority of voters, and is the issue which will win us the election, if it is handled properly.

Anonymous said...

Your right mrs A . But can we rely on Labour to do the right thing , Because one things for sure , you can always rely on the Tories to do the wrong thing ! And as I say the point I made is that without them both doing the right thing by the people then the people may end up being pushed into the arms of people who will do the wrong thing ! They are both burying there heads in the regards UKIP . & as for the Lib. Dems . As a party they will cease to exist after the next election for what they have Done . Yes the NHS is we're Labour can win the next Election . If they actually say that they are going to save the NHS & reverse the privatisations in the NHS .

John S said...

I am truly gutted to read your excellent truthful blog, to learn my views of Ed Milliband and the current Labour Party are found to be justified.

You rightly say but look at the alternative, the tragedy is, how many people will vote Labour for that reason, when they should be doing so than voting Labour because we believe in Milliband and the party. I for one have no faith in either, but as you say, look at the alternative.

Mrs Angry said...

We have to be critical of the Labour leadership because we expect, and deserve,so much from the party, to deliver us from the evil of Tory government. Coalition government.

What a state they are in. They no longer know what they believe in, and have simply become agents for private enterprise, the leaders reverting to the comfort of privilege and class to enforce their sense of righteousness. Eurgh. Roll on next May.

Mrs Angry said...

Sorry John, found you in the spam thing. Perhaps the emphasis should be not on the leader, but on the agreed policies. After all, I'm not sure the leader of any political party any longer has ultimate control. Thank God. And there are some good people in the shadow cabinet. In the end political support for any intelligent person is a choice of the lesser evil. It's not hard to make the choice between Labour government, and one run by the Tories, Libdems or UKIP.