I joined Labour back in February; and not long after attending my first CLP meeting back in March, I was kindly offered a car ride to my first Welsh Labour Conference in Llandudno, or any political conference for that matter. Well, who am I to waste such a generous offer?
Other than some obvious speeches that I’d usually watch the highlights of in the news, I had no real benchmark to base any kind of expectations. But it was clear from the get-go that it was about far more than just speakers speaking outlining what the party has done and what our opponents have done.
Democracy In Action
The act of democracy is something I’ve always had a great interest in. I’m one of those sad people who will not only stay up all night to see the various results fly in, I’ll also stay up to watch the US Presidential Election results as well. But this is so much different. The motions invoked by different CLPs and trade unions weren’t just about changes internally, but some were also about bringing about change in party policy to positively effect communities right across Wales.
One of those motions was the Democracy Review for OMOV (one member one vote). Although I couldn’t vote in the Welsh deputy leader election, I did support Carolyn Harris because of her commitment to overturn child burials but also because of her work speaking out against the ultra-addictive fixed odds gambling machines.
However, the result was somewhat blemished by the fact it’s based on an electoral college system, where some can vote seven times because they are members of certain organisations and an Assembly Member’s or an MP’s vote can be up to 400 times that of a standard member. The concern is of course with Carwyn Jones standing down in the autumn, these series of events can repeat themselves as we elect a new Welsh First Minister.
It was and continues to be a lot to take in. Motions to amend a vast list of Labour rules I’ve not even begun to learn, speeches on issues I’ve heard next to nothing and matters I do know about, albeit not entirely as well as other attendees. And I considered myself fairly knowledgeable on current events! Overwhelmed? Somewhat. Discouraged? Never.
The Experiences of Everyday People
I learnt these conferences are a wonderful opportunity for members to share their stories. More often than not, these stories not only describe the devastating impact of Tory austerity as they illustrate the effects on real, breathing people, not just numbers in a spreadsheet on a statistician’s computer screen.
Hearing the motion from the Women’s Forum to end period poverty in Welsh schools and colleges struck me the most. Obviously, being a man, it’s something I’m privileged to have never had the need to worry about. For many girls and women, it’s a constant struggle as I heard the instances of some having to go as far as using old socks and t-shirts, which is indefensible in today’s society. I have since been shocked to find out it costs on average £492 annually or a staggering £18,450 in a lifetime.
The future of social services was also a common theme in both Cabinet Secretary Vaughan Gethin AM’s speech and Unison’s fringe event where they provided a free buffet. Among those asking questions in the Q&A were several social care workers, presenting their experiences of working in the sector that has reduced their time with the people they work so hard to care for, which has resulted in an increasing number of people suffering from loneliness and therefore a degredation in mental health.
But it wasn’t all about failed Tory policy. There were plenty of examples to celebrate the successes of the Welsh Labour Government and Labour-led councils, which provided a glimpse of what can be achieved on a grander scale with a House of Commons turning red at the next general election.
There were, of course, tributes to honour the memory and work of those in Welsh Labour that we lost in the last 12 months. In particular, former Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan, whom I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of until the conference, but others also – most memorable for me being Carl Sargeant – as I am a constituent of Alyn & Deeside.
Even in these keynote addresses, I have learnt the perceptions we have of people that come from the media are even greater than I had thought.
Let’s take our Shadow Welsh Secretary, Christina Rees MP, for example. Apart from one question in the Commons, I can’t remember what about, a few months ago, I can’t say my impression was overwhelmingly positive and this is also true for my view of First Minister Carwyn Jones AM too. Yet the keynote speeches from both given on Saturday were remarkable in that it cleanly identified the differences between the Welsh Labour Government that stands for the people of Wales and the Tory central government.
I had a similar perception of new general secretary Jennie Formby except this was her first speech of this type at a conference after taking up the role just over three weeks ago. Despite the her role being more in the background, I found her speech to be moving and it was good to see the acknowledgement of the continuing battle against the antisemitism scourge in the party. And although it’d be great to have antisemitism minimised overnight, such immediate solutions within the current framework don’t exist – it is going to take time.
And what conference would be complete without a speech from leader Jeremy Corbyn. For those who don’t regularly read my pieces or see my tweets on Twitter, I am something of a Corbyn-sceptic. That isn’t to say I want him to resign or don’t believe in him as leader, but I do think someone less controversial like Yvette Cooper would bring more support from the centre.
Nonetheless his speech was nothing short of exemplary if not a bit hypnotic. Condemning the Tory government on poverty, the Windrush scandal, and repeating his pledges for publicly-owned transport, citing the success of the Welsh Government purchasing Cardiff City Airport, more affordable social housing and stamping out all forms of racism.
Maybe I’m getting carried away and maybe it was just because I was there, but I certainly feel less of a Corbyn-sceptic than before. It would have been nice to have seen a mention of antisemitism and condemning it specifically, if I were to be a bit too scrupulous to find something negative. But It’s certainly one the better speeches I’ve seen him make since he was elected leader in 2015.
This mixture of elements has shown me that like on my first CLP meeting back in March, the party is a family that looks out to derive positive changes in our communities. Before the conference, I felt the party was right in its message to support communities and protect the vulnerable. But now it’s one I am proud to have membership in so that I can stand side-by-side and increased my eagerness for me to play my part.
At the end of June, I’ll have that opportunity where I’ll be raising money for my CLP, where I’ll work at the Finsbury Square Festival for Workers’ Beer. They are a great social enterprise and I’m confident that this is just the start.