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What my students saw when I took them to the Labour party conference

What my students saw when I took them to the Labour party conference

As a political activist, I am used to conferences. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that fresh eyes are changing British politics. I took a group of second and third year students to the Labour conference in Liverpool this year and asked them afterwards what stood out to them.

We went along on the day the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, delivered his speech about the importance of winning elections.

It was also the day Labour was embroiled in a ferocious row about the arcane rules of its National Executive Committee. It was noted on the floor that rarely do procedural votes attract so much attention, but for a party as divided as Labour at the moment, the composition of its ruling body is a pressing matter.

For these students, our trip was a first glimpse at the kind of idiosyncrasies on display at a party conference. Here’s what they spotted on the ground.

Multi-tasking speakers

Media coverage before the conference suggested there were fears of violence and intimidation. There were reports that party staff were being briefed about how to handle bad behaviour. But we saw nothing like that. Security was in fact very light in Liverpool.

Nevertheless, my students noted that MPs rarely walk alone – but probably for different reasons. At least one accompanying aide is required at all times, preferably more. They should all look frightfully busy.

Lisa Nandy must possess roller skates, given the number of simultaneous meetings she seemed to be speaking at. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee must have a pair, too. She seemed to speak at more fringe events than anyone. Owen Jones also seems very popular. We didn’t spot Owen Smith at all.

And while there may not have been huge demand to see MP Duncan Enright speak, the impending by-election in Witney made a high-profile appearance inevitable. You can guarantee your candidate will get a chance to speak at conference if he is about to take on a Tory – and as Enright is fighting to replace David Cameron, he got pretty high billing.

Debating

Watching conferences on TV is fine but it only gives you half the story. We visited the conference hall while debates were going on – a central part of the event that is not often seen by the world outside as mainstream broadcasters have a habit of “cutting away” for more chat with commentators.

Delegates know what topics are being debated well in advance. The actual text of the motions, however, is very last minute (in technical terms, it is the result of compositing earlier at conference). This makes it hard for anyone to focus in detail on a particular line but easier for people to make general speeches. Labour conference is not, as a result, particularly pedant friendly.

My students meet shadow education minister Angela Rayner. Author provided

“Debates” are short. In one session there were only five speakers. People used to attending other conferences, like the Lib Dems’, where a debate can go on for 90 minutes and include one-minute interventions as well as three-minute speeches, would be amazed.

Conference hall proceedings sometimes get delayed by “points of order”. Frustrating for journalists and fringe meeting organisers but evidence that members do still have some power to interrupt with objections. I hope my students don’t adopt this tactic though.

When debating rule or constitutional changes, there will always be a speaker who complains that time spent on the debate is time not spent “taking the fight to the Tories”. That speaker is of course himself adding to the length of the debate.

It is noticeable at conference this year how many speakers said they were first-time delegates when addressing the room. Is this, perhaps, a sign of the changes in the party?

Fringe benefits

The very many fringe meetings going on in parallel to the main debates are a great way to hear more and explore ideas. At these sessions, you can often hear from quite high-profile people on discussion panels, and you can generally look around the packed (generally tiny) room to see an MP or shadow minister watching with you.

Discussion can get quite heated at these sessions and there is a certain type of delegate for whom the phrase “short question” translates as “long analysis of history”. Chairs of fringe meetings need to find ways to become more ruthless. Anyone remember the gunk tank?

Good doggy

Every party conference features a large exhibition and significant competition for the best stall. There are free gifts galore from think tanks, unions and campaign groups. I am not sure why they bothered at Labour this year, though. The clear winner was the guide dog area, complete with an exercise course, toys and a dog to meet. Sorry Falklands stand, Rover gets my vote.