Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
After first experiencing it last year, the Labour conference is fast becoming a highlight of my year; watching the party’s manoeuvres and machinations is a serious (in both senses) spectator sport. This time, it was a fleeting visit — yesterday, only — but at least I can say that I’ve been there, done that, and bought my boyfriend a Corbyn t-shirt.
The dawn showed mist through the windows of the Blackfriars train. But, on arrival in Brighton, the sun was beginning to bring out the candied colours of the sea front — powder-blue water against the soft green of the railings. An undeniably upbeat seaside mood in the air. Last year, I remarked on the difference between the baggy jackets of the Trade Union guys, the banker suits of the Blairites, and the beanies of the Momentum crew. This time, the ‘delegates’ (how they love that word) seemed more homogenous. And they’d hiked up their attention to dress all round — from the guys chatting business on the bench by the sea with their well-cut jackets folded to their side, to the teenage girls in carefully ripped jeans. Who were they all? The workers in red t-shirts, and the man with a Syrian flag wrapped around his shoulders. Polly Toynbee having her photo taken at the Momentum booth.
And so much more in the Brighton Centre, which a plaque tells us was the venue for Bing Crosby’s last public performance, in 1977 (while the Labour Party was busy joining a chorus with the Libs). A brutalist concrete alternative to the Neo-Gothic Hotel Metropole, the Centre’s side towers proclaimed lengthy ‘for the many’ posters, neatly excluding the ‘few’ who couldn’t afford to buy a pass to attend. Outside, a unison (sic) trio of ladies sang ‘union miners learn together’ very sweetly, and a guy handed out the Solidarity newspaper with the words, “Save money on the Guardian; buy this instead”.
No airport-style scanner security at the entrance, like its Conservative counterpart — instead you enter ‘Conference’ to a polite, ‘”Morning madam, are you waiting to be searched?” Stairs decorated red and white, which the Corbyn comic book I bought teaches me are the colours of his favourite football team (“We’ve timed it right. We wanted to do a Corbyn book ages ago, but we weren’t sure how long he’d last, then…”). A ‘build your own gourmet burger’. A guy selling raffle tickets; another handing out the Emily Thornberry speeches he takes from a bucket on his arm; a rival raising his voice to say “[No!] Come get your John McDonnell speeches!”. Who knew?
Then, in the auditorium, the motion proposals: an enthusiastic lady from Hastings and Rye saying, “I haven’t been here before. None of us have”. Which I think she meant literally. Down the hall, a business centre signposted ‘use the other door’, and a big Wendy House room where members could cast their ballots.
Then, the stands. People representing Bombardier promoting city planning rather than pints — but lots of unions still. The Royal Mail. The Vegan Society, with a big bowl of lentils. Carry on Clothing, with outdoor wear that’s ‘reversible, water repellent, and machine washable’. Meant literally again, I guess. A somewhat ironic poster-board at the snazzy Labour in Europe stand, displaying ‘Brexit lies’ (quotations from Hannan, Minford, Davis, Villiers, and Vote Leave) and ‘Brexit truths’ (nothing on their party’s current stance, therefore), where a couple of battle-worn Remainers were hugging. The usual guide-dog demos. Liberty posters proclaiming their wish to keep Britain ‘kind and tidy’. A sad, totally empty, stand entitled ‘The Syrian Network for Human Rights’ (its manned partner stall nearby). A local bookstore pop-up selling signed copies of Alastair Campbell’s From Blair to Brown…
Then, the stash. A special Stop the War tote bag and briefing — if you join. Little red emergency vehicles (“Jezza’s on fire!”, someone said). The latest pin badge collection. ‘Coal not dole’ stickers. Free specially-merchandised Brighton rock (for the many). But no Momentum mugs left: “Everything we had has gone ‘just like that’. Do keep checking the website, though”.
And everywhere, people really quite happy. Perhaps it’s the sunshine — by lunchtime, oh so hot — but a lot of, “Yeah, everyone seems really positive” (add the silent exclamation mark). Corbyn was everywhere, too, and not just on the front of the hot-cake stash. “They’ve been practically bowing to him”, someone told me, “it was quite lovely to watch”. Before her friend added, ‘Actually, it was creepy and cultish”. So maybe there’s fight left in the old machine somewhere.
It wasn’t all sunshine and ice-cream sundaes, either. Not just the ‘I’ve never kissed a Tory’ t-shirts, or the lack of proper discussion about Brexit. But the reports of antisemitism that I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere. A standing ovation at the words “despicable state of Israel” apparently wasn’t the most serious.
You can take the conference to Brighton, but you can’t hide the clouds.