Monday 3 October 2016

Conference 2016 - it's called Socialism, or: the Leaving of Liverpool

Sometimes people will tell you that they cannot remember anything of their early childhood: nothing before the age of six, or eight, or thereabouts ... 

I never believe these claims, and mistrust anyone who makes them. 

Someone who is reluctant to explore the vast landscape of memory rolling on behind the course of their unfolding life is hiding something - from themselves, and from you. 

Others, on the other hand, are still captivated by their past, and haunted by it: menaced by the recollection of a single moment, or a sequence of events, unable to come to terms with their own history.

My own relationship with memory - and the truth, as always - is ... more complex.

Hard to tell, in some cases, if things I think I remember really happened, or were dreams - or based on old photographs, or stories told to me, that my imagination has remodelled, and presented as a false memory: a rewriting of history.

Perhaps all of these configurations inhabit the same part of our subconscious, and it doesn't really matter, as by the time they reach that area, they are all fiction, of some sort.

I thought about this, quite a lot, in the last week, in Liverpool, returning there for the first time since my early childhood, and particularly one wet, grey morning, in which I wandered even further away from the conference centre than usual, keen to escape the ceaseless, pointless hostilities that have erupted within the Labour party, and reconnect in some way with some half remembered part of my own life.

The need to do this was made stronger by by the feeling I had, that in all the time I have been coming to the party conferences, I have never felt more disconnected with the event than I did this last week. 

This was partly because Liverpool itself is stretched out along the waterfront, the old docks, and the hotel I was staying in, booked with another friend from Broken Barnet, who had subsequently had to cancel her trip, was a long way from the centre, and every journey there seemed an effort. 

But then every journey everywhere seemed to be fraught with difficulties: maps that made no sense to my uncoordinated brain, streets without names, (the signs have probably been nicked, love, for the scrap metal, suggested one of the local taxi drivers whose forthright opinions were more interesting than any debate in the conference centre: in some cases,to finish the points they were making they insisted on keeping you in the cab for ten minutes after you reached your destination, so keen were they to discuss the treachery of the parliamentary Labour party, the failure by New Labour to engage in meaningful dialogue with the core working class voters, etc etc ... 

One driver told me with great pride about his great grandfather, who had taken part in one of the dockers' strike, a century ago - and seen two other strikers shot in the street by soldiers.

Another driver had had that Tristram Hunt in the back of his cab. How can you have a Labour MP called Tristram, he demanded? And if you see Jeremy, he added, with what was, in his considered view, clearly a commendation of the highest order, and one that would make up for a year of insults from his own MPs: tell him he's alright.

The other reason for a sense of isolation was not geographical, but political, and personal: the other party members from Barnet present at Conference having supported Owen Smith's leadership bid, most naturally perceive the wicked Mrs Angry as a swivel eyed, arm twisting Trot, trouble maker, and militant Corbynista. 

Disappointing not to be able to live up to such an exciting, if one dimensional, stereotypical archetype, and to fail even to make it to the Momentum event, busy transforming the world: the shameful truth is I meant to go, but never quite worked out where it was, or how to get there, and took that as a sign, in the end, that I really didn't want to go enough to make the effort.

Feeling somewhat marginalised, therefore, and left to my own devices, I dutifully wandered about the Conference centre, looking in vain for much sign of life, or debate - but noting the slight change in emphasis in the stalls present in the hall: fewer corporate attendees, and more campaigning groups. 

Better pens, this year, mind you: always a bonus: a token handful for Cllr Devra Kay, stuck at home, who usually collects as many of these trophies as she can lay her hands on, and counts them gleefully on the train back. Thirty nine, last time. 

Mrs Angry's Conference 2016 award for Teachers' Union flashing light pen most likely to induce migraine/epilepsy goes to ... NASWUT

Some interesting books at Blackwell's stall: 

Corbyn sold out, and no one wanted the last Thatcher book ...

Outside the compound there was a lack of the usual protesters and leafleters: only a stalwart few, like former Barnet blogger Vicki Morris, bothered to show up: 

And on the Sunday morning it was good to see a number of some of the admirable teaching assistants from Durham, so viciously treated by the Labour county council - women forced to accept a massive cut in pay, here to publicise their case:

The Durham TAs come to Conference

The atmosphere everywhere, this year, however, was curiously muted: dull, in fact ... no doubt due to the absence of sulking MPs, and the more lively members being catered for over at the Black E. One theory, in fact, was that the leadership had encouraged the Momentum festival to take place in order to do exactly that, to run a sort of creche for the more hyperactive activists, and keep them safely distracted from the main event. 

In the hall, however, during the plenary indulgence sessions, things were slightly more lively - at times - for once there were even queues at the doors. This provoked some impatience amongst the party faithful wanting to get in. I'm sorry, said the conference volunteer, charged with limiting admission. It's not up to me: I'm only the last link in the chain. Workers of the world unite, suggested Mrs Angry, at the head of the queue: You have only your chains to lose. We're allowed to say that now, aren't we? she asked, looking around, slightly nervously, for members of the NEC, or their network of spies. We were waved through.

On another occasion as we waited there was an attempt to sell us copies of the agenda. I think, said one of the more right leaning members in the queue with whom I had been discussing the party's woes, looking in my direction, rather primly, some of us have our own agendas, don't you? ... 

Len Mc Cluskey, on Monday, put his opinions in his usual blunt style, which used to make those on stage during the Miliband era wince and struggle with their body language, seeking a way of communicating distance from his views. Miliband, in fact, would leave the stage rather than remain while he spoke.

We'd had a rough of couple of months, but we mustn't let that overshadow the fact that we were moving the political dial. Laissez faire economics have failed, and we need a new economic model ... and apart from being against anti-austerity, we must be for something too. He repeated what seems to be his favourite quote - and one of mine - from Harold Wilson: that Labour is nothing, if not a moral crusade. And to those who say that principles without power is pointless, we've seen what power without principles leads to ... 

 “So I say to the merchants of doom, in the words of Shakespeare's Henry V, 'if you have no stomach for this fight, depart the battlefields ...'

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell made a good speech, lambasting the Tory government failure to have any plan in place for Brexit, focusing on the impact of economic injustice, the 'casino economy' promoted by the Tories; the hidden cost of tax evasion and avoidance, quoting 'Christians on the Left' and reminding us that 'Patriots pay their taxes' ... He also announced, to great applause (from me, especially) that a Labour government would ban tax dodging companies from winning public sector contracts. He promised that within 110 days of gaining power, the Trade Union Act would be repealed, and to introduce a real living wage, that Labour would invest in science, renewable energy, and encourage the creation of an entrepreneurial state. Good business, he said, does not need no government: good business needs good government.

At the end of his speech, he mentioned his own association with Liverpool, where he was born, and to the era of his childhood, the sense of optimism and progress that was the mark of the sixties. 

Under Jeremy’s leadership, I believe that we can restore that optimism, people’s faith in the future. In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.

Imagine the society that we can create. It’s a society that’s radically transformed, radically fairer, more equal and more democratic. Yes, based upon a prosperous economy but an economy that’s economically and environmentally sustainable and where that prosperity is shared by all.

That’s our vision to rebuild and transform Britain.

In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it’s called Socialism.

As I left the hall, two of the boys in suits, examples of the bag carriers, researchers, spads & party workers who still dominate the party structure pushed in front of me. Well, said one of them to the other, in a public school drawl, apropos of some debate about the local political scene: they're always on strike around here, aren't they? 

I had another encounter with one these empty headed creatures in the cafe area: desperate to sit down, as my back problem was playing up, I asked him politely, though somewhat pointlessly, if anyone was sitting on a chair next to him on which he had placed his jacket. No, he said, but someone was, erm, meeting him. At any moment. I leant against the wall, sipping my coffee for about twenty minutes, giving him the Mrs Angry death stare until he could take no more, grabbed his jacket and legged it, perhaps to meet his imaginary friend. 

Of course Mrs Angry had some sympathy: after all, most of us have imaginary friends who always let us down, don't we?

Someone for whom Mrs Angry has no sympathy at all, it must be said, is the deputy party leader Tom Watson, whose speech on Tuesday he clearly thought was a tribute to his wit, wisdom, and outstanding moral stance. I feel this may be something of a misrepresentation of the truth, if so.

There are some who see the current internal fight within the party as one between angels and demons, the definition of which varies according to your own interpretation. Tom Watson is on the side of neither. Tom Watson is on the side of Tom Watson. It seems he wants to be powerful, but popular, and admired, more than he wants anything else. This is a regrettable, but not unusual, motivation for any politician. 

A grandstanding performance, with which he was clearly very pleased, especially when he picked on a woman heckler who quite rightly stood to remind him of Chilcott during his Soapy Sam attack on those who won't leave off criticising the Blair administrations. In his one acknowledgement of the presence of the party leader, he turned to Corbyn and sneered that the woman had clearly not received the 'unity memo'. Corbyn sat still, with icy disapproval, and rightly so. If anyone has failed to take on board the plea for unity, as evidenced in his own speech, it was Watson, who failed to urge the party to unite behind the Leaders, just re-elected with an even more massive mandate. 

On Tuesday, my wanderings around Liverpool were timed in order to take a look at a rally in support of miners who have seen billions of pounds creamed off from their pension funds by the government. Here gathered a crowd of miners, many from the Yorkshire coalfield, looking like all the old miners I remember from my childhood visits to my mother's home town in Durham - tough, but ageing in poor health. 

As we waited for the speeches, one of these old boys nudged the other, and pointed to the edge of the crowd. Look over there, he said, with an expression of contempt: Kinnock's son

Blink, and you would have missed him: Stephen Kinnock, left, in the distance

Yes: there was 'Red Prince' Stephen Kinnock, MP for Aberavon, if you were quick enough to catch his flying visit, in his pristine suit and gleaming white shirt, standing for a brief moment at a safe distance from the crowd, posing for a photograph by someone who appeared to be an aide, with a tight smile, then shooting off, before the speeches began. Perhaps he was in a hurry: probably wanted to read through his notes for the event that was supposed to be chaired by former washing machine salesman Keith Vaz, on the subject of immigration, and how we needed to use the issue to win votes for Labour - a listing which one might hope never to see at any Labour conference.

Just as well he left then, probably. When I moved off, the voice of ASLEF's Tosh McDonald was reverberating around Derby Square, mentioning certain disaffected Labour MPs in terms of less than reverential observation. 

A government pension robber, and Tosh McDonald

Across the street, as I walked by, I noticed an old man with fading, curly red hair, with the sort of face you would have seen on the dockside arriving from Ireland, once upon a time, dressed in threadbare trousers and jacket, slowly bouncing a dayglo tennis ball against the walls of an alley, handling it with such care, it might have been the most precious object in his possession. 

Perhaps he had few other possessions, and it was exactly that: precious. He stopped, when stopped by another old man, asking him what he was doing, thereby interrupting the ritual - then he took out from his pocket a tiny pink hairbrush, the sort a little girl would buy from Claire's Accessories, with her pocket money - and brushed his hair with it, just as slowly, looking across the road at the miners, with an inscrutable expression.

That night was an event of no little significance to many of the members attending Conference from Broken Barnet: the Labour Friends of Israel reception, which I normally attend, but missed last year, due to a sequence of unfortunate events. This year I wanted to make the effort, as it could hardly be a more important time to show support.

Corbyn addresses the Labour Friends of Israel reception

The Labour leader traditionally attends this event: and Corbyn this time had had the sense to listen to well informed advice on what needed to be said - and he said it. In the circumstances, it is a tribute to the tolerance and good nature, and good manners of those present that he received nothing but a warm welcome, and generous applause. One report claims that there was some booing when he began to speak, but if so it must have been muted, as I didn't hear it - and after his speech there was nothing but a courteous, enthusiastic response.

Visibly nervous, he set out to declare his absolute condemnation of anti-semitism: referring to its 'vile and ugly head', and he stated in no uncertain terms that he would not allow the Labour party to be a home for anti-semitism. He could not have been clearer. He paid tribute to Shimon Peres, then in the last moments of his long life - and yes, he mentioned Israel, several times.

Predictably, of course, this speech and this condemnation was not widely reported. 

Hats off to the Jewish Chronicle, Morning Star, and Spectator: otherwise ... if it was reported elsewhere, I couldn't see any references. No doubt at all that this is because it does not fit the agenda of the elements of our revered media who prefer to deal in smears, and relentlessly negative stories about Corbyn. 

He repeated the same condemnation of anti-semitism the next day in the Leader speech, which was necessary, and welcome. And Barnet councillor Kath McGuirk spoke to Conference in the morning on the subject of combatting not just anti-semitism, but all forms of discrimination: let's hope the party now gets to grip with the issue with actions, and not just words.

At the LFI reception were some of our local councillors, (turning up late, for some reason ...) including one who told me he was staying at the Adelphi Hotel: not through choice, but because he could not find any other room. Bit grim, he said. And then I told him I had been there, earlier that day.

This was a diversion I was always going to make, and part of the reason I had made the journey to Liverpool: to revisit a place I often think about, being the scene of one of those moments in your early life which mark a point of significance you will struggle to understand, even a lifetime later; but a memory which recurs, as if asking a question. 

Before this week, I hadn't been here since I was around four years old. 

It was in the sixties: we were going to Ireland, for the first time, because my mother wanted to see the border country of Mayo and Sligo, where the family of her grandmother, who had helped bring her up, had come from. 

My father explained that the ship we would sail on would take our car on board, that the car would be driven onto a giant net, and be lifted on to the deck, from the dockside. He had forgotten to tell me that we would not be in the car when this happened, and all the way to Liverpool I worried about this terrible ordeal ahead, hanging up in the air, swinging above the perilous, watery gap between the ship and the quay.

When we got to Liverpool, we drove along the waterfront,  peering up to see the the Liver Birds, their wings outstretched in greeting - and then we went to visit some business colleagues of my father, who was a member of the Baltic Exchange, and worked in shipping, in the City of London: in some dark, dockside warehouse, a gloomy place inhabited by white bearded old men, like clerks out of a Dickensian counting house, who entertained us in some sort of wood panelled boardroom, before we left, probably at my mother's insistence, to have tea, at the Adelphi Hotel. 

We sat then at a table covered in starched white linen in what seemed to me to be the most enormous, cavernous room, attended by waitresses in aprons, pouring tea from silver teapots, as a Palm Court orchestra played across the room, old ladies in long skirts, playing cellos, conducted by a man with brilliantined hair, and a bristling moustache. My father sent him a note, via one of the waitresses, and then, to my horror, and pride, in equal measure, the conductor bowed in our direction, and announced he would play something especially for that little girl, over there. Me. 

The opening notes of 'Teddy Bears' Picnic' filled the room, as, it seemed, everyone turned round to stare at us, - and I slid off my chair, to hide under the protection of the starched linen walls of the tablecloth. Once there, however, as the music played on, it occurred to me that I ought to be revelling in the attention, and standing on the chair, if not the table, acknowledging the rare tribute, one which broke the rules in our family, that you must not ever 'show off'-  or expect any gesture of approval, or affection - for fear of becoming spoilt. 

I'd been warned, in advance, about the Adelphi, from a friend who often visits Liverpool, and yet my expectations were wrong-footed by the reality. 

Not so much modernised, and brash - (apart from the dreadful, mock leather sofas, looking like something bought on impulse from an Argos mass clearance sale) - as deeply, overwhelmingly sad; and something else, hard to put into words, something dark, and oppressive, bearing down on the room, present in the deep shadows, despite the incandescent, glittering, massive chandelier, and the dull light of the filtered glass panelled ceiling, through which you could see years of grime, moss, and old confetti, washed of its colour by seasons of rain.

I found the exact spot that I could still recall, fixed forever in my mind, where my four year old self once sat, and experienced one of those moments in life when you are confronted by the illusion of time standing still. At the table, still, my father, the man of business; my mother, distant, emotionally disconnected; my brother, behaving impeccably, as always, while his naughty sister sat under the table, in awful trouble. Across the tables by the brass railed alcove, the orchestra played on, regardless. And nothing will ever change what we were then, or what those of us who are still here are now. 

In side rooms off the vast, ornate elegance of the dining room, sullen staff sat in grubby overalls, listening to the radio. 

Most incongruously, the strains of music seeping into the room, I realised, were from 'I've got you under my skin', sung by Frank Sinatra ... someone who, as I discovered later, had stayed at the Adelphi, once upon a time.

I would sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of having you near
In spite of the warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats, how it yells in my ear
Don't you know, little fool:
You never can win ...

Back home, looking up the history of the place, it hardly came as a surprise to read that the Adelphi is supposedly the UK's most haunted hotel. For me, it certainly was - haunted, and haunting. 

Standing there, I felt myself succumbing to the atmosphere of the place, and an inexplicable sense of grief: for the past, and maybe for the future, too - and left before the only other occupants of this vast stateroom, an elderly couple sitting hidden on one of the sofas, waiting obediently for the coffee which had never arrived, wondered why I had tears in my eyes. I knew why I had tears in my ears, that some of the questions I never want to ask myself were answered anyway, in that room.

One night, staring out of my hotel window across Prince's Dock, and another melancholy sunset over the river Mersey, it occurred to me that this place was not only one from which we had left for holidays in Ireland, reconnecting with my mother's family roots, but also the place of arrival of most of those Irish forebears, a century earlier. And a place of departure, for some of them, eventually, on to America, like the ones who were supposed to sail on Titanic, but arrived too late - and whose descendants still possess the unused tickets.

Farewell to Princes' landing stage; River Mersey fare thee well

Liverpool is a place of transition: a point of arrival, and a point of departure. It is also a city whose earliest prosperity was based on the most heinous form of trade: slavery - the commodification of human life; the ultimate, most explicit expression of capitalism.

There is a sense of corporate authority, and a sense of entitlement, written into the architecture and public monuments of this city that is belied, and defied, by its latter history: this is now a city of the people, glorying in its working class heroes, musicians, poets, writers, films: their names written in pride all over the place, in its museums, its streets: a place of rebellion, politically, and culturally.

A fitting venue, then, you would expect, for a conference for the party founded on the principles of attaining social justice for all, to be a voice for working people. But the Labour party, over the last few years, has cut its ties with those founding principles, ashamed of its own history, and only now is the struggle beginning to realign the party with those values. Corbyn's leadership is not an end in itself, and those who fail to see beyond the process of change that leadership has kickstarted are missing the point: wilfully, in some cases.

The Leader's speech has been moved to the end of Conference, and this year tickets were not given to all those attending but distributed according to some sort of system of vetting, unspecified. Mrs Angry managed to pass muster, somehow, and gained entrance to the hall, with a well placed seat. 

This year Corbyn spoke with new confidence, fluency - and passion. It was exactly what the ordinary members in the hall wanted to hear: standing ovations were continuous. Some have reported, presumably from the comfort and distance of the press room, that 'a few' people walked out, when Iraq was mentioned. Being in a position to see anyone leaving, I must say that I saw no one leave - and quite to the contrary, most present stood at this point in absolute agreement with his comments. Makes a better story, of course, the alternative version.

Another myth created by the press was that there were many vacant seats in the auditorium, before the speech began, and that these had to be packed with 'Corbynistas'. Not true. A handful of seats were filled with those at the back of the queue, in the last few minutes - but only a few, and these members were most certainly not Momentum fanatics, but looked more like retired dentists from Scarborough, or library assistants from Cheltenham. (If they still have libraries in Cheltenham?) 

It should also be noted that there was a huge overflow of members without seats, that had to be accommodated in a nearby cinema, so many were there - and who were immediately visited by Corbyn after his hour long speech, and addressed for another ten minutes.

The speech itself followed a short but powerful film reminding us of all the achievements of Labour governments, over the course of decades: the NHS, Human Rights Act, equal pay, minimum wage, and so on: we saw footage of the fight for women's suffrage, the anti-apartheid movement, and each new image was greeted with enthusiasm of course, and it was good to remember this history, these keystone markers of every inch of social progress, stretching back to the very beginning of the Labour movement, all too often forgotten, or seen as history, a sentimental scrapbook of no relevance to a twenty first century party., or worse, a distraction from the progression of brilliant careers.

Of the five leader's speeches I have heard, the one that followed was by far the most impressive: well judged, well delivered, a delightful contrast to the manufactured pap of the Miliband era, speaking straight to the issues rooted, as he said, 'in traditional Labour values' - which ordinary members want addressed: austerity, social justice, the NHS, housing, employment rights, education; an end to tax dodging.

Running like a golden thread through Labour’s vision for today as throughout our history is the struggle for equality.

Rampant inequality has become the great scandal of our time, sapping the potential of our society, and tearing at its fabric.

Labour’s goal isn’t just greater equality of wealth and income but also of power.

Our aim could not be more ambitious. We want a new settlement for the 21st century, in politics, business, our communities with the environment, and in our relations with the rest of the world.

Every one of us in the Labour party is motivated by the gap between what our country is and what it could be.

We know that in the sixth largest economy in the world the foodbanks, stunted life chances and growing poverty alongside wealth on an undreamed of scale are a mark of shameful and unnecessary failure.

We know how great this country could be, for all its people, with a new political and economic settlement.

With new forms of democratic public ownership, driven by investment in the technology and industries of the future, with decent jobs, education and housing for all with local services run by and for people not outsourced to faceless corporations.

That’s not backward-looking, it’s the very opposite.

It’s the socialism of the 21st century.
Who could argue with that? Only those whose interests lie in a different sort of Labour party - one that wants power more than principle, for all the wrong reasons, and projects their own selfishness on to an electorate they think so little of, that they imagine can only be tricked into voting for a Labour government if it clothes itself in the borrowed policies of the Tory party. Those who want to forget the history of the Labour movement, to rewrite it, and the values on which it is rooted.

The speech received a storm of acclamation from everyone around me in the auditorium:  it was a moment of triumph - one that clearly infuriated Corbyn's enemies. We stood to sing the Red Flag, and Jerusalem - and here Mrs Angry can exclusively reveal she was asked to be one of those on the stage behind Jeremy - presumably because she was the only Barnet representative at Conference who hadn't backed the very normal Owen Smith (remember him?) for leader - an invitation which immediately sent her back to that hiding place under the tablecloth in the Adelphi Hotel (although for one brief, reckless moment she did entertain the idea, calculating the degree of embarrassment she could cause her children, on a national scale ...

Outside the exit from the speech, as members left in a mood of exultation, cameras focused on a pair of MPs whose expressions and body language suggested a sense of slight disappointment that the speech had gone so well: yes, Stephen Kinnock, again, and the ubiquitous Chuka Umunna, representing everything, in my view, that we must never return to, in the Labour party.

In front of them another interview was taking place with Angela Rayner, whose contribution at Conference had been impressive, and warmly received. She was speaking from the heart, of the need for unity, as the two sulking representatives of the disengaged side of the PLP attempted to make themselves more relevant than they really are to the movement of the party. 

I thought Liverpool would be a good place to come to, for a wake: for the death of the Labour party. In fact, reports of the death were greatly exaggerated: the movement and the party continue, wounded, but in recovery, just about - just so long as the wreckers who want their way, or no way, for the direction of the party to follow are prepared to unite, and work together to reach some possible point of common interest - and compromise. They've tried using force to get their way: now they need to put their weapons down, and listen to the voice of the ordinary party members who have said, quite clearly, that they want a new kind of politics, one which enfranchises them, empowers them - and no longer excludes or marginalises them. 

Another departure, then, rather than a death, in Liverpool this last week: destination unknown. But the lesson for us all is that a party, or an individual, that ignores their history, and tries to disconnect themselves from the past, cannot move on to a better future. You must confront the past, and the questions it raises, with honesty, honour the good things that we find, and cast aside the bad, to resolve the conflicts that lie in the present. Maybe then we can move on, move forward. Just maybe.

Mrs Angry, eternal optimist, Liverpool, September 2016


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