Image: Disability activist Paula Peters of DPAC speaking at Labour Party Conference.
Widespread media hostility to Labour was on maximum revs during and in the immediate aftermath of the Party Conference. Labour can expect nothing favourable from the likes of the Daily Mail or the Murdoch press, but the coverage in much of the self-styled ‘liberal’ press and supposedly ‘impartial’ broadcast media was more dispiriting.
The Independent opted for a nasty, distorted interpretation of everything Jeremy Corbyn said in his closing address. The Guardian was at least largely positive with both Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones among the enthusiasts.
But Channel Four’s Jon Snow conducted a belligerent interview with Jeremy Corbyn during the Conference in which he belaboured the Labour leader on Brexit and on Venezuela. And the BBC was more subtly dismissive. Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg completed an on-air report by wondering aloud if the enthusiasm for Corbyn was just a fad. BBC Assistant Political Editor Norman Smith questioned the public’s appetite for Labour’s new radicalism and suggested that the public would baulk at anything other than marginal change. This is opinion, not reporting. Their effect if not their intention is to put doubt into the minds of listeners. I have yet to hear anyone at the BBC describe fans of Boris Johnson as faddists; or the change implied by Brexit as “marginal”.
That Labour has weaknesses is indisputable. On Brexit, the Party is clear on the need for a period of transition, but not about what comes afterwards. Corbyn’s statement during his address that “The three million EU citizens currently living and working in Britain are welcome here” raised a cheer but left unmentioned one reason why the issue is a headache for the government. EU citizens can currently to bring a spouse to the UK – but UK citizens with a foreign spouse can only do so if they have an annual income of at least £18,600. The obvious answer (since no government could agree to providing immigrants with rights that resident citizens do not enjoy) is to scrap the income requirement altogether - but it doesn’t figure in Corbyn’s speech.
Foreign policy is another Labour weakness. The endemic lack of knowledge and expertise of foreign affairs evident in Hilary Benn’s overblown Churchillian speech to parliament in favour of bombing Syria was on display again during Conference as various MPs voiced ill-informed opinions about Russia, Ukraine, and Latin America.
Perhaps the most significant weakness of all is the inability of many Labour MPs to explain the economics of the Party’s programme of public investment and renationalisation of key utilities. This deficiency was fully on display during BBC’s Question Time on September 27, when panelist Labour MP Ian Lavery failed to explain, in answer to a question from the audience, the difference between borrowing for capital investment and increasing the deficit. Some in-house training would not go amiss.
Shortcomings are, of course, inevitable in any project as complex as running a country, which is why programmes for governance are always works in progress and subject to amendment. Journalists are aware of this even if they do not say so.
Yet they delight in picking holes in Labour’s programme and Corbyn’s speech, whilst failing to digest the spirit of the Conference. None seem able to convey the change that has occurred in the Party’s dynamics since the fading of the Blair-Brown hegemony.
As a first-time attendee at Conference, what struck me first - and increasingly - was the participation of people from every conceivable walk of life. Trade unionists and local delegates made impassioned speeches from the main stage. Votes took place that changed or modified existing policies. Significant elements of Corbyn’s closing speech picked up on themes first heard from the party’s rank and file.
Member participation was not confined to the main hall. There were countless break-out sessions, seminars, “fringe” discussion groups, most with full involvement of MPs and trades union leaders. A parallel conference entitled The World Transformed took place under the auspices of Momentum - smaller meetings that overflowed with attendees, enthusiasm and a fervent desire to wrest the country from the grip of neoliberalism and the 1%.
On Brexit, there were strong, impressively eloquent interventions from young members, strongly against leaving. They are, after all, the ones who’ll live with the consequences.
But if the speeches by the young were impressive and convincing, the most moving were by people whom the media like to refer to as ordinary. Here is one from Paula Peters, an activist on behalf of the disabled. Over and over, we heard voices that were recognisably working class. One delegate began his address by revealing that he had lived on the streets and now, thanks to his partner, had a roof over his head and bread on the table.
Not once did I hear the plummy, vulgarly patronising inflections of the Tory aristocracy that assail us over the airwaves courtesy of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, and ‘money-tree’ May. Instead I heard the voices of the poor, the oppressed, the ignored, the patronised. I heard my own working-class origins in these voices, not in every accent, but in the passionate denunciations of inequality, of economic injustice, of the cruelties of Tory austerity. I heard people calling for their rights as citizens, and for a restoration of critical public services - health, education, utilities, transportation - that the Tories have degraded through privatisation and cuts. I heard appeals for places to live and an end to the homelessness that haunts the streets of our main cities; and for an end too of in-work poverty. I heard disgust at the repellent lies and distortions of the right-wing media directed at the Labour leadership and the Labour revival. I heard outrage at the callow carelessness that brought about the horror of Grenfell Tower. I heard pleas for a more humane, a more caring, a more equal, a more just, a more communal society and country. I heard calls for an end to the icy theology of neoliberal capitalism and its replacement with cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid. I heard anger at the betrayals and pretensions of the traditional political elite. I heard a determination to bring about change no matter how long the road or how distant the uplands, or how arduous the journey. Above all I heard hope. Go tell it on the mountain, for the mainstream UK media will not.