Fringe meetings at Labour Party Conference can serve different functions. People use them for networking, to swap business cards, pick up tips: the lifelong Labour supporter and the loyally Labour energy company executive both come by the Harland & Wolff business breakfast to take a look. People use them to drop in and out of, foraging for food and freebies. The PolicyMogul canvas tote was a hit this year, as were the coaster-size Labour Women’s Network badges with inspirational slogans in 1970s-style fun fonts. But what I like is to sit down, drink water, catch up on my thoughts and look about me. Which is what I did for much of SME4Labour’s Monday lunchtime session on Enabling British SMEs to Access MENA Markets, in which SME stands for small and medium enterprises and MENA for Middle East and North Africa, a term that includes the Occupied Territories when used by the United Nations, but not when it is used by the IMF.
Fintech, fashion tech, sports tech are big in MENA, especially after the World Cup last year in Qatar. Great for us, now that Labour is ‘moving in the right direction’, according to the gentleman from the Institute of Export and International Trade. The gentleman wanted to issue ‘a clarion call, if I may’. International trade is a force for good, humanity needs it to solve its ‘issues’. MENA is young, and so the economic potential is ‘vast’.
My Monday morning had begun outside the ACC campus, with the young woman who was leafleting for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. I stopped to chat and she asked me if I’d wear a PSC-branded lanyard. Sorry, I said, I don’t want to attract attention: the day before, Apsana Begum, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, had been harassed and hounded for having her photo taken beside one of their posters. ‘Oh no, please, no, no, not today,’ a man was shouting. I think he really was upset.
On I went to another fringe event, this one organised by Labour & Palestine, a grouping of trade unionists, most from inside the Labour Party, some not. The mood was solemn, quiet, respectful, and it greatly helped that no one was allowed to film or record. John McDonnell MP spoke first, saying that his children and grandchildren are his most precious gifts, and that just as he condemned the killing of Israeli ‘innocents’ by Hamas, so his heart went out to everybody in Gaza. Jess Barnard, who sits on Labour’s ruling NEC, spoke next, about her trip to the West Bank refugee camps in 2022. Bell Ribeiro-Addy, MP for Streatham, talked about the immense weight of British historical responsibility, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, and said that, ‘unless we want to keep going round and round in circles, we have to talk about peace.’
The final speaker was Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian Mission to the UK. He thought, he said, about how the Anti-Apartheid Movement had originated in London, and how ‘compassionate’ he knows the British people can be. He was looking forward to continuing his relationship with Keir Starmer – they’d met before, and talked about ‘the Labour Party’s commitment to international law and peace in Palestine,’ he told the Jewish Chronicle in June. I backfill and I paraphrase because I’ve been trying to check my scribbled notes with Unite, which hosted the meeting, and the Palestinian Mission, because I’d hate to get it wrong: but I think you can see why I was thinking, so this is diplomacy, and it’s amazing. What an exemplar of the craft.
Zomlot was on Newsnight that evening, telling Kirsty Wark that his cousin, her husband, her mother-in-law and two of her children, along with two other members of his extended family, had just been killed by a bomb in Gaza. The two-year-old twins were in intensive care. ‘And the issue here, Kirsty, is that … they have nowhere to go. They are simply sitting ducks for the Israeli war machine.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Wark interrupted, ‘for your personal loss. Can we just be clear, though, you cannot condone the killing of civilians in Israel, can you, nor the kidnapping of families?’
‘No, we don’t condone, Kirsty,’ Zomlot said, going on to explain the basics of the Palestinian Authority position.
‘But we’ve heard … that Hamas may be … threatening to kill hostages. Do you condemn that kind of action?’
At first I couldn’t see why she felt she had to be so boorish, then I did. Both she and the producer on her earpiece know how words these days get parsed and reparsed, cut and copied, tweeted, quote-tweeted, kept on file: they don’t want to be seen not to do enough condemning and not-condoning. They’re scared, or that’s what it looks like. More than the man with family killed in Gaza, I think they were scared.
The ‘big-ticket speech’ of the day, as Newsnight called it, was that of Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, no longer ‘boring snoring’, as a former Newsnight boss once tweeted – and see, right here, evidence that words in the age of the internet never disappear – but a straight-backed, firm-gripped iron lady, secure in her Securonomics, ‘iron-clad’. People I met really liked the Reeves speech, especially the bit about taxing the non-doms and the energy profiteers. But the truth is that I didn’t actually see it except on YouTube, because Labour wouldn’t let me into the hall to watch the speeches (the party didn’t seem to think the LRB was a ‘relevant media outlet’), and I couldn’t get near any of the relays, and the internet was hopeless, which is the reason, I guess, all the bigger news teams brought their own. Even the tea urn was marked BBC Team Refreshments Only. I got some water from a water cooler and sat down on the floor.
This was my first ever Labour conference, though I’ve been a branch secretary since 2018 in South-East London, and a constituency treasurer too. I’ve heard so much about conference, over the years, from past delegates, and I’m old enough too to remember when it was broadcast for hours instead of children’s programmes on BBC2. The serried delegations, the procession of the panel party, the vast, dim theatre, the cheers; the hand votes and the card votes and, especially, the composite motions, said in the particular way that Labour says it, COMpoSITE: I could write something grand here, about democracy, about the labour movement, but I don’t need to, because I wasn’t allowed to see it. I barely saw my own constituency delegates either. They were out on the floor all day voting. I was learning about MENA markets on the fringe.
One thing I did see in my WhatsApp messages, however, was how much Peter Mandelson had been upsetting my Labour friends. How glad he was, he said, that the current leadership had ‘drain[ed] the swamp that sort of enveloped the Labour Party under Corbyn’, by which he meant ‘all the far-left extremists and antisemites’, of whom he used the word ‘infested’ too. You almost get used to that sort of trash-talk when you are, as I am, a Labour member of the Corbyn vintage, and to the party’s swamp-draining techniques: new rules and sudden, retroactive proscriptions; suspensions, investigations, expulsions; meeting bans, picket bans, bans on attending demonstrations; the awful feeling of being looked at as an awful person, the lowest of the low. But Mandelson is right that lots of the people who joined the party under Corbyn are no longer in it. Mostly this is because they just got tired of being hated on and left.
There were exactly 1109 voting delegates at the conference, elected by their peers from constituency parties, affiliated unions and socialist societies: the Labour Women’s Network, for example, the Socialist Health Association, the Jewish Labour Movement, Christians on the Left. The rest of the reported 18,000-odd attendees included members of the Rose Network, who get a free ticket in return for donating £100 a month to the party – £208 for Ambassadorial status, £416 to join the Chair’s Circle – and MPs and councillors, who get in free. Women’s Aid was there, the Child Poverty Action Group, Refugee Action, but also an unprecedentedly large proportion of commercial visitors, who could buy a full-week pass to the balcony overlooking the main hall for £1783. The swamp was drained and gone were all the extremists and antisemites, replaced by men in suits and women in tailored dresses, poster-tubes on straps over their shoulders, three-lens iPhones in their hands.
It was the same in the exhibition hall. Yes, there was Care Not Killing at one end and Dignity in Dying at the other. Yes, an actual guide dog was in attendance, at a tactful distance from Cats Protection. But the bigger presences were Google and Sainsbury’s and the free fruit and bottled water at the Intuit Small Business Hub. A stand cost £13,100 for a floor space of 12 square metres and it was more for an invite-only lounge space, such as the Barclays one for ‘Parliamentarians and Shadow Ministers’, or the ‘exclusive, airport-style’ Heathrow space. You could advertise on the actual floor, or on the stair risers, or on a banner. Or on the app, or with a leaflet drop, or with your QR code on a wall.
Or you could pay for your own fringe event, for a panel with your own speakers, and a politician, or a pollster, or a friendly journalist in the chair. So on the Monday, as Polly Smythe reported on Novara, Mandelson spoke at a panel talk sponsored by Amazon and hosted by Onward, the Tory think tank; Onward advertises a party-conference panel-talk package on its website, £17,500 plus VAT. SERA, the only environmental organisation affiliated to the Labour Party, hosted events from the Labour Environment Hub, a marquee emblazoned with the branding of RWE, the German energy giant that has some interests in wind and hydro, but also mines lignite in the Hambach Forest and burns gas in the UK. A talk on Innovation in Public Service was sponsored by Meta. One on the gig economy was sponsored by Deliveroo.
On the Tuesday I discovered the red vinyl cubic pouffes at the Training Hub, where Labour Party staffers ran advice sessions for ordinary members – an EU evening was one idea I heard for a fundraising mixer, with cheeses from as many as possible of the member states. I liked the way the staffers kept thanking the ordinary members for ‘everything you do’. So that was where I sat for the leader’s speech, and the odd, incoherent glitter protest at the beginning of it. It felt like it had all happened long ago already, partly because the feed on the GB News stand next door was transmitting a couple of minutes ahead of our one, and partly because the people on the stand opposite, representing the Solent Cluster – low-carbon enterprise from the ExxonMobil plant at Fawley – just ignored the speech, just kept on chatting right through.
A huddle developed in the press room so I joined it, though I never found out what it was for. Then it shrunk to nothing, then suddenly emerged again, at the other end of the room. It wasn’t Starmer, it was a woman thought to be in league with the glitter protester. Cameras crowded round her as she was frogmarched out. And then there was a smaller huddle – the huddle proper, I’m told. It’s only a huddle, apparently, when it’s the party staffers and the lobby, getting policy detail about a speech. Sure enough, I could see Matthew Doyle, Starmer’s director of communications, at the centre, but I couldn’t get close enough to hear a word. Then at 9.22 that evening, I received a special Team Labour email, inviting me to pre-order a limited edition Sparkle with Starmer glitter T-shirt. ‘Jenny, shine bright like Starmer … Unleash your inner shimmer and shine.’
At 8.33 the following morning Starmer was on LBC breakfast radio with Nick Ferrari, who asked him what ‘a proportionate response’ would be from Israel to the Hamas incursions of 7 October. ‘A siege is appropriate? Cutting off power, cutting off water, Sir Keir?’
‘I think that Israel does have that right and it is an ongoing situation. Obviously everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has the right to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility for these terrorist acts.’
Lubaba Khalid resigned from Young Labour the day after, then two councillors resigned the Labour whip in Oxford. Resignations, distress, open letters, continued as I handed in this piece. Labour tried to suggest ‘it was one of those things where there were overlapping questions and answers based on what had been said before.’
Yaz Ashmawi, in the meantime, apologised for scaring Starmer with the glitter, and turned out to be acting on behalf of a group called People Demand Democracy, which wants the House of Lords to be replaced by a House of Citizens, appointed by sortition. A letter on its website threatened ‘proportionate action’ if ‘the leader of the Labour Party’ failed to meet its end of September deadline, so I guess that was what the glitter was about. Ashmawi said he had joined the Labour Party especially for the protest, and within an hour of it had received an email to say his membership had been suspended pending an investigation. At the end of it, he said, he expected to be expelled.
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