London Regional Conference 2017 was a big success for the membership, for the left and for CLPD. Its delegates were very left-wing compared to even last year's when the right-wing slate won every contested position on the Board. Votes went overwhelmingly to the left either unanimously or by over 90%. We passed strong policy on housing, bringing London Region's position in line with that of Labour Party Conference (and the current leadership), and we secured some long-overdue rule changes to democratise the regional party. Moreover, it was clear that members no longer accept being told what to do by their 'superiors'. Councillors who tried to defend poor decisions were politely but firmly rebuked, and when the Conference Arrangements Committee tried to deny delegates their right to debate rule changes they were challenged and easily defeated. Confidence in the CAC was not increased by their apparent failure to provide delegates with the option of a Card Vote.
In 2016 a set of rules for London Region were introduced for the first time since they were torn up under Blair fifteen years ago. These stipulated that there should be a Regional Conference every year, instead of every two years as in recent times, and that CLPs and affiliates can submit motions and rule changes.
The Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) - of which I was a member - was presented with a conference timetable which would have had the motions deadline at the end of September. I suggested that this would not give CLPs adequate time to discuss them after Annual Conference in Brighton and that we should push the deadline back by a month to the 3rd of November. This meant that there would be no time for a priorities ballot. I proposed that instead we group motions into topic areas and prioritise topics with more motions submitted. This was agreed.
Almost fifty motions and rule changes were submitted by CLPs and affiliates across a range of topics. The most popular topic by far was Housing, with almost twenty motions submitted. The other topics all had no more than half a dozen but Transport, Health and Crime & Policing were marginally more popular than the others so these were chosen for debate.
The compositing process was straightforward for three of the topics but the sheer number of Housing submissions made this more complex. The party's policy unit proposed a composite but delegates at the Compositing meeting felt that this was much weaker than the submissions. As an early indication of what was to happen at this conference, the delegates successfully challenged this and insisted that the composite be built not from the suggested composite but from the motion circulated by CLPD and London Labour Left, which made up almost half of the submissions. The end result was much stronger motions which were more in tune with the submissions and which were firmer in their demands from Labour-run London Councils.
At Conference itself the motions debate was lively and characterised by excellent speeches from left-wing CLP and trade union delegates. Many of the motions were much more radical than would have been even contemplated just a couple of years ago but they were nonetheless passed by super-majorities of 95% or even unanimously. It is now London Labour's policy to
This conference began to set the policies which would build on our successful 2017 general election manifesto for victory in the 2018 local elections. It is now down to London Labour and Labour Groups in London to carry out them out.
London Labour's new regional rules make it clear that “Any party unit or affiliate can propose any amendment to the Regional Conference or submit an amendment for consideration by the Regional Board at any time”. This was not well-advertised but nonetheless five CLPs did submit a variation of two rule changes produced by CLPD. The first proposed that the CAC be elected by Conference and not appointed by the Regional Board. The second proposed an expansion of CLP and Trade Union representatives on the Board, with CLP representatives elected by one-member-one-vote.
The CAC was aware well before the deadline that rule changes would be submitted and this was briefly discussed at the meeting in early October. Moreover, when one CLP asked if they could submit both a motion and a rule change, London Region told them that they could submit either but not both. It was therefore some surprise to me when, at the first CAC meeting after the motions deadline it was stated (as though it were uncontroversial) that the submitted rule changes would not be debated. This was on the spurious grounds that this would conflict with the ongoing Democracy Review led by the NEC.
I tried to make the argument for why we must include them but was shot down before I had really started. I was outvoted: I was the only person in the room who would even contemplate allowing the Conference to debate these rule changes so as far as the CAC was concerned the matter was settled.
The CLPs who had submitted the rule changes were understandably unhappy with this ruling. One received confirmation from those running the Democracy Review that it should not prevent rule changes being debated. CLPD liaised with the five CLPs and they collectively wrote to the CAC asking for this decision to be reconsidered. Sadly, the last CAC meeting before the conference was cancelled so the issue was not discussed. Instead, the CLPs began to arrange to 'reference back' the CAC Report at the conference, allowing delegates to challenge the conference agenda and ensure that the rule changes be debated. This was the front page of CLPD's London Regional Conference edition of 'Yellow Pages'.
On the morning of the conference a final meeting of the CAC was convened. Here it revealed, unsurprisingly, that both unions and CLPs had complained about the CAC decision to keep the rule changes off the agenda. Fearing a rebellion on conference floor a compromise had to be found. Len Duvall, as Chair of the CAC, then proposed one such compromise during the Conference CAC Report: a vote would be taken on Sunday on whether or not to discuss the Rule Changes. The CLPs who had submitted the rule changes were not happy with this, and nor was the bulk of conference. A protracted back-and-forth then ensued with countless delegates demanding that the vote should be held there and then, and not kicked into the long-grass. This was eventually put to a vote and it was agreed almost unanimously that the Rule Changes be debated.
When this finally happened on the Sunday it was clear that the mood of the room was behind them. By this point the conference had lost a lot of faith in both the CAC and the Regional Board, so being given the opportunity to elect their members seemed a lot more appealing than it would have been without all the preceding drama. Like the procedural vote that put the changes onto the agenda, both rule changes passed with near unanimity in both the CLP and affiliates sections.
It is now incumbent on the Regional Board to ensure that these changes are implemented fully and promptly.
Workshops and fringes
The Conference hosted nine workshops on different policy areas from housing and schools to the night-time economy. The CAC decided the policy areas but not the final list of speakers, who were largely local councillors or assembly members. There was plenty of opportunity for delegates to discuss a wide range of topics - which was a welcome development from previous years - but what was really striking was the difference in opinion between the speakers and the delegates. Most delegates took a measured view of Labour's record in local government - praising the successes while drawing attention to the shortcomings - whereas almost all the councillor speakers took a rose-tinted view, presenting Labour's record as beyond criticism. Clearly it is right that we promote our accomplishments to the electorate but that should not be done at the expense of an honest appraisal of where we have gone wrong, particularly on controversial issues like housing and regeneration. It was not clear whether the speakers' uncritical analysis was a propaganda exercise designed to deflect disapproval from their fellow party members, or whether they genuinely believed it. Either way, with a newly expanded and engaged mass-membership keen to change how we do local government, this approach is no longer sustainable.
The fringes were more of a mixed-bag. Each equality strand (Women, LGBT, BAME and Disabled), along with Youth, had a fringe, with me organising the latter. The others were organised by affiliates like the Co-op or Unite, or campaign organisations like Momentum. The most popular by far was the NEC Democracy Review, demonstrating that Labour Party members remain committed to democratising the party and giving power to members. Momentum's fringe was the second most-popular, filling out the main conference hall with a discussion on how to build on the 2017 result. I enjoyed the discussions had in the Youth Fringe. One piece of advice particularly stood out for me: Don't wait for permission from your CLP to organise young people, just do it!
There is no doubt that this was a successful conference for those who support Labour's current political direction and who want greater democracy in the Party. In part this is due to the hard work of left-wing members and delegates, and the ongoing trend of CLPs becoming increasingly representative of our membership. But in part I believe that our success comes from the Right neglecting to take the conference seriously. I do not think they realised that rule changes could be submitted until it was too late and left-wing delegates had been elected. Not realising this, and without elections scheduled for this Conference, I do not think they believed it worthwhile organising for it.
This mistake may haunt them in future for by neglecting to pay attention to the rules they have allowed the left to make potentially long-lasting changes to how the CAC and Regional Board are elected, ensuring that in the future these bodies are more representative of the membership.
There is a lesson here for all of us: don't be complacent, work hard, organise, and make sure you know the rules.