By @Jack_Madden_ - 10th October 2012
Once you've spotted a serious shadow cabinet member miming 'Call Me Maybe', I don't think you'll look at them the same way again.
Fresh from Labour Party conference, parliamentary researcher, Jack Madden talks free sandwiches, dancing politicans, Movement for Change and 'One Nation Labour'.
It was my first time at conference, and it was the first time I felt the Labour Party finally seemed united, and the first time Ed Miliband pulled it out the bag. It was the conference of 'One Nation' Labour.
There was so much going on, with many great speakers and events. I don't have time or space to report them all, but I thought I would share some of my own personal highlights of what I got up to, and give you a flavour of what conference is about.
I arrived in a cloudy Manchester on Sunday afternoon, ready to get stuck in and see what was going on. Even though it was only the first day, as we arrived at the conference centre you could genuinely feel the excitement building. There was a buzz in the air, and I was struck by how positive and upbeat the atmosphere in the Manchester Exchange was. It felt as if people were coming together and were not only willing to listen to one another, but most importantly eager to act.
Movement for Change
With this proactive buzz in the air I hit the fringe events. I felt it was fitting that Movement for Change (M4C)- to me, one of the most interesting developments within Labour right now- was the first proper fringe event that I attended, as they are the definition of 'proactive'. M4C's session had everything that makes the fringe events so brilliant; you get the chance to dip into different ideas and activities that your party is doing and broaden your political horizons and you always take new information and ideas away from each of them.
The free food and drink doesn't hurt either! Though be warned, the same sandwiches that are great on day one wear a little thin by day four.
The event, in true M4C form, was lively and enthusiastic, reflecting what I love about Movement for Change.
The session opened with a few short speeches from those at the top- Kathryn Perera, director of M4C, Stella Creasy MP, and David Miliband MP. This was followed by a number of accounts of the fantastic projects M4C has been doing by the on-the-ground activists who are leading the way. Living wage campaigns, women's safety charters, even just getting some goal posts put into a park. It was all great stuff and some fantastic work has been, is being, and will be done by M4C in the years to come. I overheard one person sat next to me whisper: "I feel all inspired now, like I need to get out there" and that was exactly the point. 'Listen, organise, and act'. Superb!
Alexander and Balls
Day two and everything was in full swing. I arrived early at the conference centre and went straight to the main hall to see what the plenary sessions were all about. When I arrived Douglas Alexander MP was about to speak, and Ed Balls was up very shortly after. Douglas Alexander is not an MP that I've ever followed particularly closely before, but I have to say that I was very impressed with his performance.
Ball's speech was very passionate and engaging, and his public speaking has really improved lately.
He told the audience that Labour are 'united and determined', echoing the feelings that surrounded conference. He also got a chance to jibe Cameron and his 'butch' remarks, calling the PM and chancellor 'Butch Cameron and the Flat Line Kid'. He named dropped some important policy ideas like tackling tax avoidance, introducing the living wage, and calling for an open inquiry into the culture of the financial sector, as well as building a proper British investment bank backed by the treasury.
It seems that the trick to the main plenary sessions in the conference hall is to blend a message to the troops of your party, an attack on the government, and a call for wider support in the country at large, with just enough concrete policy to give evidence that you can do more than slam your opponents. I felt that both Alexander and Balls managed that, as did many others in the shadow cabinet over the course of the conference.
The Leader's speech
Day three was the main event, and what most of us were there for: the leader's speech.
My best piece of advice for anyone thinking of going to conference to see the Leader's speech is this: get there early. The queues are incredible.
We turned up two hours before Miliband was due to speak, and still only just got into the main hall. There were a lot of disappointed people who had to go watch the speech live on a big screen in separate rooms instead.
However, whilst the queues were frustrating this was absolutely the highlight of my conference experience and something everyone should try and do if they decide to make the trip themselves.
Again, the hall was filled with an electric atmosphere of positivity, of wanting to get out there and take the fight to the Tories (and in Miliband's words 'the Lib Dems that let them do it').
To me, it ticked every box of what the leader's speech should be: it tied all the themes of what had come before with the other plenary speeches and presented an over-arching vision of what Labour is about. It gave the party a vision: 'One Nation Labour'.
It was a call to arms for party members, but also spoke to the wider public. It brought together our history and record, but also showed where it is that we are going. This was the crescendo to the wave of enthusiasm that had been building in the fringe and earlier plenary sessions, and I think it really worked. Everyone was blown away by the change they witnessed. Even the most committed David fans amongst my friends changed their opinions because of the speech. One colleague's Facebook status summed it up, saying, "unexpectedly revitalised and energised. Brilliant!"
My one question on the leader's speech is this: why is the headline act for this gig in the middle of the show? Surely it would be better to put the Leader's speech on the last day so that it can serve as a finale? Anyone? No? Just me then...
"Plebs of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but this Tory Government".
Day four was a mix of what had come in the previous three days. I attended fringe meetings on energy and climate change, saw Yvette cooper give a brilliant speech on justice in the main hall, that had without a doubt the best line of the conference in reference to Andrew Mitchell's police gaffe 'plebs of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but this Tory Government'.
There was even a little more Ed Milliband in the form of a Q and A with the leader, which I also felt was a nice touch that made him seem 'human' and showed us how well he can respond to questions on the spot. I also felt it reflected how we all want Labour to be as a party. It was a conversation between top and bottom, leader and grassroots activists, and that we all have a chance to shape the party in some way or another.
The final day also gave me a chance to meet a personal hero of mine, Arnie Graf. Graf is a community organiser from the Industrial Areas Foundation in America, and is currently advising Ed Miliband on the potentials for the community organising model in the Labour Party and in Britain. I got to ask him about how he got involved in community organising, what he thinks could happen with community organising here the UK, and how he trained Barack Obama as an organiser back before he became president. For me, this was another real highlight of conference- you get the chance to meet people involved in politics that have inspired you, and meet still more people who could inspire you in the future.
I found it bizarre to get to talk to people you've only ever read about in books or seen in newspapers and on TV. There is a caveat to this of course as you may see your political hero at something bizarre like the Labour Student Disco or the USDAW disco. Once you've spotted a serious shadow cabinet member miming 'Call Me Maybe', I don't think you'll look at them the same way again.
Getting to go to conference means that you see from top to bottom what is going on within your party. You get to judge the mood of the members and leaders, you get a sense of the ideas, policy, and direction that the party is travelling towards. You get to meet and to be one of the people that make that happen. It's an exciting, interesting, challenging, and tiring experience, but one that I can fully recommend. If you do have the chance to go, you absolutely should, at least once.