Conference Diary 2015: Everybody's changing and I don't feel the same

Labour Party conference, like the Party itself, has changed, and yet it has also stayed the same and this is both a cause of worry and of optimism, writes Sadiq Khan's communications director Polly Billington.

Jeremy Corbyn's speech reminded the party of what unites it, writes Polly Billington
Jeremy Corbyn's speech reminded the party of what unites it, writes Polly Billington
Those enthused by the changes see them as reasons for hope, ironically adopting the "forward not back" mantra I first heard in the Blair years, if anyone suggests it might be worth reflecting on the implications of a devastating defeat in May. 

About two thirds of people seem very enthused about the "change" thing and that Jeremy is "gonna shake things up" - particularly new attendees. The other third are, as someone said, "deeply traumatised" and working out what happens next.

The best and most surprising event I witnessed is the Labour First meeting on Sunday which usually would be held on a couple of sofas in the corner of the Grand Hotel or some such.

Instead, this year the tiny upstairs room of a pub couldn't contain the throng, nor indeed could the pub itself, and the moderate, sensible wing of the party found itself convening an ad-hoc rally in the street in the sunshine, with tub-thumping speeches from Tom Watson, Rachel Reeves and Luke Akehurst.

Those who chose to serve, like Vernon Coaker spoke alongside those who have chosen not to, like Yvette Cooper.

Most remarkable was to find the people who have become characterised as technocratic, boring compromisers - and worse most recently "Red Tories" - finding the fire in their belly and the language of commitment and principle. 

It has always been there, but it was a show of strength, and indicated that the left do not have a monopoly on commitment and principle.

Jeremy’s speech on Tuesday reminded all of us what unites us, and for that reason, among others, the standing ovations he received illustrated that this is a party for which fighting injustice is our "irreducible core".

There was a welcome acknowledgement of the changing nature of the workforce in what he and John McDonnell said about the insecurity of the self-employed. 

Every single one of my colleagues who lost in a key seat will know how important that is. Not just for white van man and woman’s votes, but also for achieving social and economic justice for our entrepreneurs.

It may not be the kind of thing hard-bitten hacks will find easy to discuss, so is clearly a risk in political communications terms, but for Jeremy to talk about restoring kindness to politics does indicate a change that I hope will be made real by the way we have our open debates in the party, but also beyond in our conversations with the British public.

It will also be hard for politicians who have spent many years thinking and describing people as units of economic activity rather than human beings with hopes and fears.

If those who prefer to talk about graphs and data start taking about kindness and people, as well as responsibility and contribution, we can find a common language that connects the idealism of Labour party members and activists with our neighbours and communities beyond the new and expanded party.

I have anxieties about Jeremy’s Speech – the only places mentioned where egregious injustices are being conducted appear to be abroad: Saudi Arabia, Syria Iraq.

No mention of Nuneaton. Few stories about, or connections to, those who seek justice and progress for themselves and their families right here, right now.

But my anxieties were not reflected in the conversations I had afterwards with my friends and family, enthused like so many others, by a call for change in politics and a belief there has to be a better way.

I have a lot of friends, but I am not sure whether there are enough of them, or even people like them, for us to achieve through electoral means our desire for a better Britain.

Polly Billington is the former Thurrock PPC and Sadiq Khan's Communications Director

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