(by Tom Rivlin)
A lot happened at the Labour Party Conference this year — the biggest in a long time. Not only was it my first time representing Scientists for Labour at Conference, it was my first time going to Conference full stop. I was thrown right into the middle of some significant battles for the future of the Party, and I took advantage of every opportunity available to represent the interests of science and scientists to the Powers That Be in the Labour Party.
Before Conference, every CLP, Trade Union and Socialist Society was given the opportunity to submit contemporary motions, to be debated during Conference. Scientists for Labour submitted a motion which impelled the Party to adopt the position of wishing to remain within the EEA post-Brexit. We decided upon this motion due to the immense damage to the scientific community we have always known Brexit would entail. We wished to do our part to mitigate the damage. The motion was accepted for progression to Conference, along with many others.
The first day, Sunday 24 September, was dominated by the priorities ballot. Every delegate voted on which of the many motions submitted by the various groups would eventually be debated. We each chose the top four motions (specifically the top four categories of motions) we wished to debate during Conference. It was widely anticipated that the Brexit category would be one of the four winners, and we made many plans for how to ensure our motion had the best chance of succeeding. We collaborated with Heidi Alexander MP, whom I met in person at Conference, to plan our strategy for the compositing meeting, the meeting in which the various Brexit motions would be consolidated into one motion. We also planned what to do when the motion got to the conference floor.
Unfortunately, this never came to pass. It later transpired that the evening before, the leadership of Momentum sent out an email to their supporters urging them not to vote for the Brexit motion. The justification for this was that Brexit was “already set to be debated on the Monday morning Conference session”.
In my opinion, this is a grossly misleading statement. Whilst it is true that time had been allocated to debate Brexit, there was no motion attached to this debate. Conference did not have the power to set Labour policy during this time. Given that many of the delegates who received this email were, like myself, first time Conference attendees, I believe this was a deliberate attempt to use the Conference’s confusing rules and structures to confound inexperienced delegates: they were not told that they would be throwing away their chance to affect Labour policy on Brexit.
There are good arguments to be made against debating Brexit right now, namely that it is a highly divisive issue and the Party is currently trying to focus on unity. Some also perceived the Brexit issue as a stick to beat the leadership with, which people are highly sensitive to after the open hostility the leadership has endured in the past. However, I was still bitterly disappointed that this crucially important issue was sidestepped at Conference in favour of the ‘toothless’ Brexit debate we got. I did not vote on any of the motions which were eventually debated in the delegate’s hall.
From Monday onwards my main priority was attending fringe events relevant to science. On Monday, I attended two back-to-back fringe events on artificial intelligence, one hosted by the Fabian Women’s Network and one by New Statesman. I managed to ask a question in the former on behalf of SfL. I also attended a fringe event on the digital economy run by Labour Business, where I asked a question. On Tuesday, I attended a fringe event run by our sister socialist society, SERA, and managed to ask a question there. Hopefully by raising the profile of SfL at these events we can encourage more people to discover us.
Other general interest fringe events I attended included the Jewish Labour Movement fringe, the Labour Humanists fringe, the Labour Friends of India fringe, and a fringe run by IPPR on Labour’s electoral coalition. I also saw Sadiq Khan being interviewed by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief.
One of my other important priorities at Conference was to vote on SfL’s behalf for the Socialist Society representative on the NEC. I voted for the incumbent, James Asser, whom we officially endorsed, and who won with over 90% of the vote.
The Socialist Societies stall was well-visited. I only managed to spend a brief amount of time crewing the stall myself, but in that time I handed out several flyers and had many interesting conversations with conference-goers and other Socialist Society representatives.
Despite missing out on the important Brexit motion debate, I did get one final opportunity to represent the interests of science and scientists to the Brexit frontbench team when I went to the Brexit policy seminar. Here delegates were given the opportunity to raise issues directly with Keir Starmer MP, Emily Thornberry MP, and Barry Gardiner MP. I didn’t get a chance to ask a question in this seminar, but I would just like to personally note that I was thoroughly impressed with all the answers the three of them gave to all the queries put to them. It seems to me as though they do genuinely care about and understand the issues surrounding Brexit, and are opposed to the hard Brexit favoured by the Conservatives (and, as some speculate, by the Labour leadership). I believe that Keir, Emily and Barry are on our side, and if they can make their case, some common sense may be restored to the Brexit debate.
I did manage to catch Keir outside the seminar for a very brief 30 second discussion around science issues, before he had to run off to another meeting. Hopefully I made an impression.
My final important job as SfL delegate was to meet with people of interest to SfL. Alex Mayer MEP got in touch with SfL before the Conference to arrange a meeting. Ms Mayer is the MEP for the East of England. She was interested to hear our concerns about science issues post-Brexit, and so I relayed them to her. She also mentioned that she was planning to organise a conference for various biotech firms in Brussels some time in the New Year, specifically to discuss Brexit-related issues.
I was given a lucky break when I bumped into Chi Onwurah MP in a club on Sunday night. I was told by John Unsworth before Conference that the most important interactions at Conference happen after 10pm, and I firmly believe he was right (I got 12 hours of sleep total over the three nights). Although Chi did not have time to meet during the day, we did manage to have a brief conversation (over loud music and drinks!) about science policy issues … strictly off the record, of course.
Another lucky break occurred when I bumped into Mike Galsworthy wandering around the Brighton Centre. After introducing myself he kindly offered to meet for drinks in the evening (another after 10pm interaction!), and we discussed science and Brexit issues. Whilst we were at drinks we ran into an acquaintance of his, Anna McKie, who works for Research Fortnight.
The 2017 General Election campaign was the first I fought as a Labour member, and during that time I met some incredible people whilst fighting to defend Hammersmith from the Tories. I was fortunate enough to get to meet and catch up with four of them at Conference: Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter, whom I met several times during the campaign, Hammersmith resident Lord Alf Dubs, Dr Rupa Huq, the MP for neighbouring Ealing, and Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the MP for Tooting. I campaigned in all three MP’s constituencies, and they all hugely increased their majorities, a fact I am immensely proud of.
Brexit wasn’t the only controversial issue at Conference. Three NEC proposals for amendments to the constitution were debated. The first was an uncontroversial proposal which increased the number of NEC members, to allow for one more CLP and one more trade union delegate. I voted for it and it passed without issue. The second amendment was the so-called McDonnell amendment, which proposed lowering the threshold for the percentage of PLP members who must nominate candidates for leader and deputy leader in future from 15% to 10%. After much deliberation, I voted against this motion, although it passed almost unanimously, and I am not as strongly opposed to it as I have been in the past.
The final amendment was the so-called JLM amendment, which sought to make it easier to expel those who bring the party into disrepute by being prejudiced or engaging in prejudicial or offensive behaviour. I voted for this motion, and it passed almost unanimously (despite a small amount of behind-the-scenes drama).
Finally, Conference rounded off with the Leader’s speech, which I was fortunate enough to be able to attend in person. I was thoroughly impressed with the passion evident in the 70-minute long speech, and I was enthused by the optimism in the transformative platform Jeremy Corbyn and the frontbench presented. We gave a standing ovation to Diane Abbott (who was my brilliant local MP for 18 years) and to the whole front bench team, and to many other proposals and statements Mr Corbyn made. Labour hasn’t looked so much like a government-in-waiting in a long time, and I am buoyed by the possibility of the Conservatives finally being defeated.
Conference was an exhilarating experience, and I was immensely grateful for the opportunity to experience it for myself. I only hope I made a difference, and helped Labour and our organisation.