Conference diary: plenty of talk of power but where was energy?

Liverpool.jpgTravelling back to London on an overcast Wednesday afternoon (in the booked seat of a train company that shall remain nameless), the air conditioning broke and a small but steady stream of water leaked from the ceiling into my lap. The same thing happened to other people up and down the length of the carriage: dripping on scalps, trickling down backs and, in one unfortunate case, pouring straight onto a hapless worker’s laptop. The incident led to much British tutting and rolling of eyes. Complaints to the guard were followed by conversations with neighbours, the sharing of napkins and even a few jokes. This annoying shared experience led to a sense of unity amongst my previously silent fellow travellers.

It was a fitting end to a week spent in Liverpool at the Labour party conference where a lot of people looked like they were walking around under their own personal air conditioning leak. The energy was low, the conference was poorly attended and the atmosphere was muted. Corbyn’s unsurprising re-election on Saturday meant that the party had wasted almost an entire year fighting with itself to end up exactly where it started.

The most disappointing aspect was the lack of any kind of debate about the huge political changes taking place outside the conference. Brexit, and its consequences, were barely mentioned from the main stage in any of the major speeches and it wasn’t even deemed important enough to be one of the top eight issues discussed by conference delegates. The main issue up for debate was the internal state of the Labour party and where it was heading.

As such, this was not the conference at which to discuss the substance of policy. Apart from the announcement that Labour would ban fracking (which met a mixed response thanks to union support for the industry) and a few fringe events, energy and environment was not on the agenda. One exception was Mary Creagh who seemed to be on a one-woman mission to convince her party how bad Brexit will be for the environment. (She even went as far as to admonish her colleagues for using the word ‘Brexit’:  “It’s not a nice chocolate bar. It’s not a Kitkat!”) This bodes well for the future work of the Environmental Audit Committee, which she chairs.

However, there were some reminders of the strong vein of environmentalism that still runs through the Labour party. A rally organised by Labour’s environment campaign, SERA, filled nearly two hours with speeches from MPs both new and old, ex-secretaries of state, local government reps and lifelong campaigners. Its presence in local government is a glimmer of hope for the party. Marvin Rees, the first black elected mayor in Europe, spoke about the good work he’s doing in Bristol but reminded the mostly white room that, for the environmental sector to be truly successful, it needs to start talking to wider sections of society.

On the main stage, Sadiq Khan talked about how he was tackling air quality and pollution as mayor of London, with a not very subtle reminder that the only way to do this is by getting elected. But most of the talk from the main stage was about unity: “the party needs both wings to fly” was one of my favourite phrases.

Post-referendum, Green Alliance agrees with this sentiment. We are now working with organisations across the sector to ensure that the UK environmental standards and protections remain strong and to gain support from MPs. Seventy nine MPs have so far signed our Environment Pledge committing to support the UK in becoming a world leader on environmental protection; maintaining global leadership on tackling climate change; and ensuring that the British countryside can flourish alongside a thriving farming sector.

The environment sector has come together around the changes we want to see in a rapidly changing political landscape. Time will tell if Labour can do the same.

[Image: ‘Royal Iris of The Mersey Leaving The Pier Head Landing Stage Liverpool’, courtesy of Tim Dutton from Flickr Creative Commons]

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