Beyond the Headlines in Brighton

October 3, 2021

It’s two years since I started writing this column in The Journal and The Chronicle.  In that time we’ve had a general election, a global pandemic, a change in Labour leader, and Britain has left the EU. 

Then, as now, I’d just returned from Labour Conference in Brighton.  And then, as now, the reality is different from the TV clips. 

The Conference Hall that you see on TV is the nexus of the conference.  There’s motions, and rule change debates, and the big speeches from the main stage.  The Party managers are concerned about the headlines, of course, and how the leader’s speech gets reported. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The conference centre holds dozens and dozens of exhibition stands.  Trade Unions, think tanks, charities, businesses and journalists.  It’s fascinating to see the TV and radio stations.  They really do create pop up studios.  It’s hard to walk far without appearing in someone’s shot. 

For every news headline, there’s two dozen fringe events spread across Brighton, a hundred private meetings huddled around tables in hotel bars, and politicians and advisors scurrying around finishing speeches on a just-in-time basis.  I became very familiar with the venue security check and bag search.    

I arrived on Sunday evening.  A few meetings and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in person for two years, before a back-to-back couple of days, with meetings from 8am to late.  Conference is the only time it is acceptable to propose a 10pm meeting!  

On Monday morning I bumped into Andy McDonald at breakfast.  As a North East MP, we’ve got to know each other over the years.  We discussed his New Deal for Working People.  It’s a great piece of work that lays out in detail how we change employment law to benefit Britain’s 31 million working people, and still enable good employers to thrive.  It includes a proposal for everyone to be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.    

Later that day, Andy resigned – unhappy at being told to argue against proposals he was advocating.  Ambitions and headline policies are one thing, but any credible government has to know how to deliver the detail.  Andy will be a loss to the Labour front bench. 

My first meeting was an interview with the Financial Times – how do we level up places like the North East?  My answer – generate more wealth here.  That means investment.  We’re creating thousands of good green jobs at the North of Tyne.  But with more financial tools, we can really start to eradicate unemployment and poverty wages. 

Then off to a fringe at The World Transformed on Community Wealth Building.  On the panel were three other Labour politicians in power, who are also creating jobs, keeping money in their local economies, and tackling economic inequality.  I spoke about “guerrilla economics” – how it is possible (just) to make a local difference even when Government starves our regions of funding.  Most encouraging was a well informed audience of Labour people in local government making a difference. 

Then a series of meetings with Union General Secretaries, and the new Director General of the CBI.  Conference is an efficient opportunity to meet lots of people one after the other.  Zoom has its uses, but it’s not the same as face-to-face meetings. 

More panels – Community Wealth Building with shadow ministers, Tackling Regional Economic Inequalities with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.  And a fascinating panel with Andy Burnham and John McDonnell on a fairer taxation model to replace Council Tax. 

In between were media interviews.  Cross questions on LBC in a makeshift studio discussing the topical issues including Andy’s resignation (sad), party unity (essential) and the fuel crisis (totally avoidable).  My favourite question was from Tyne Tees TV’s Tom Sheldrick: should Labour conference be held in Newcastle.  An enthusiastic “Yes”. 

Lastly I met up with fellow Metro Mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham for a couple of hours (in the bar) and later Sadiq Khan joined us.  Then some late night and early morning Combined Authority business from my hotel room on the overburdened hotel Wi-Fi.

All before heading off on Tuesday evening to Manchester, for the Transport for the North meeting on Wednesday morning. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 04 Oct 2021