Labour Party conference

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The British Labour Party conference is held each September. There is also a spring conference, which meets in February.

The 2004 conference took place against the backdrop of a grim hostage crisis in Iraq, and continuing public disquiet over British involvement in the Iraq war. It was notable for an unprecendented, orchestrated campaign by internal pressure groups to revive democratic institutions within the party [1]. As had been the case at several previous Labour conferences, much of the action took place in fringe events. Many of these were organized by well-connected think tanks such as the Social Market Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research, and enjoyed sponsorship from industry bodies such as the Mobile Operators Association and corporations like Siemens Business Services.

2004 Labour Party conference

The 2004 Labour Party conference was held at the Brighton Centre, Brighton from 26-30 September 2004 [2].

Grassroots motions at the 2004 conference to revive democracy within the party

The conference is traditionally a forum for deciding party policy. However, under the leadership of Tony Blair, it has been accused of becoming more of a showcase event, akin to the Democratic Convention and Republican National Convention of the American political system. The 2004 conference saw an unprecedented campaign by internal pressure groups to tackle these criticisms by renewing democratic mechanisms within the party. The site acted as a clearing house for these groups [3].

  • The Campaign For Labour Party Democracy tabled a motion at the 2004 conference which would prohibit cabinet ministers from serving on the powerful Conference Arrangements Committee [4]. The campaign argued that this would make the conference more democratic, and less of a convention-style event.
  • A September 11th, 2004 letter in The Guardian stated: "The position of chair of the Labour party exists completely outside the rulebook. Tony Blair created this (paid for out of party funds) without any consultation and without members having any say in who fills the position. Manchester Central constituency Labour party has submitted a proposed rule change for discussion at this year's conference to ensure that in future a party chair is elected by the membership." [5] The Labour Party 'chair' at the time of the conference was Ian McCartney [6].
  • Brownswood Branch Labour Party, acting in association with the Save the Labour Party campaign, passed a resolution "to seek support for instructing the NEC through Conference to draw up measures to... restore collective responsibility to the governance of both the Labour Party; and when the PLP is in government, the country." Among other ideas, the resolution proposed "fixed electoral terms for the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, a code of conduct for holders of those offices of the Party, and/or a trigger ballot mechanism for the re-election of holders of those offices." [7]

The Save the Labour Party campaign maintained a list of such resolutions.

Public relations companies at the 2004 conference

According to a PR Week article, the following public relations firms will be operating at the 2004 Labour conference [8]:

  • Bell Pottinger Public Affairs is throwing a drinks party for clients and MPs at the Grand Hotel on Monday 27 Sept 2004. All Labour MPs are invited.
  • Fishburn Hedges has, according to the article, "set up both one-to-one meetings with ministers in addition to hosting fringe meetings on specific issues. Its public affairs division is also holding evening receptions at conference hotels."
  • Connect Public Affairs is, according to the article, "hosting a reception celebrating the diversity of Britain. A selection of black and ethnic minority bands will be performing during the evening reception at the main conference hotel. Furthermore, Connect is hosting a concert by the Youth Jazz Orchestra at the Hilton West Pier on the last night of the conference."

Social Market Foundation talks at the 2004 conference

The leading neo-liberal think tank, the Social Market Foundation, is organizing an extensive programme of fringe talks [9]. Most, but not all, talks are sponsored by a commercial organization that has a direct interest in the subject being discussed. A quid-pro-quo for sponsoring a talk is that a representative of the sponsor sits on the discussion panel.

For example, a talk on Tuesday 28th September, titled "Gambling, regeneration, and social responsibility: can everyone be a winner?" is sponsored by Sun International, a corporation that operates a number of casino resorts in Southern Africa. Peter Byrne, its executive director, has a seat on the discussion panel. The panel includes no representatives from anti-gambling organizations, or organizations involved in treating gambling dependency.

The 'fringe' tag would appear to be somewhat misleading, as 14 out of the 18 talks feature a serving Minister of State [10]. The SMF programme of talks appears to be very much at the centre of the Blairite conference agenda, rather than at the fringe.

Social Market Foundation talks
Date Title Sponsors Panellists Notes
Sun 26 Sept "Is Labour wasting power?" Prospect  
Mon 27 Sept "Spend now, pay later: are levels of indebtness unsustainable?" The Finance Leasing Association and the Citizen's Advice Bureau  
"Can the private sector deliver public good in the NHS?" Capio Healthcare Ltd Capio describes itself as "one of the leading providers of independent hospital services in England" [11]
"On target: do targets improve public services?" Price Waterhouse Coopers  
"If I were a rich man... does Labour have the answers for our housing have-nots?" The British Property Federation  
"The good life: what makes us happy? Delivering health, wealth, and well-being" Groundwork and Barclays Bank  
"Listening to the public: does community consultation improve the planning process?" The Mobile Operators Association According to a July 2004 article in The Daily Mail, the MOA is opposing a proposal by a Commons Committee which would require mobile operators to obtain planning permission for all new mobile masts, and would give parents a veto over siting [12].
"Market forces or market failure: is design a public policy issue?" The Design Council and Vauxhall Cars  
Tues 28 Sept "What should the Labour party do about CSR?" BUPA  
"Pay now, spend later: is the government's savings and pension policy going to bridge the savings gap?" Royal London  
"First choice: the way forward for public services?" The Audit Commission  
"Moving on: transport for a third term?" The Go Ahead Group  
"Life skills learning: whose responsibility?" Learn Direct  
"Gambling, regeneration, and social responsibility: can everyone be a winner?" Sun International

Sun International is a casino operator based in Southern Africa [13]. According to a September 2004 report in the South African Business Report, the company intends "to establish a gaming group with casino complexes... in towns across the UK." The article says that the company's chief executive Peter Bacon "said UK gaming laws, dating back 40 years, were 'quite restrictive'. Casinos could offer only a small number of slot machines and were not allowed to market themselves, provide entertainment or sell alcohol... People had to apply for membership 24 hours before they were allowed to gamble. However, the UK government had now realised the need to update these regulations, bringing gambling into the mainstream economy." [14]

The inclusion of the leader of Birmingham City Council on the panel is significant, as Sun International is considering building one of its new mega-casinos in Birmingham [15].

One might suppose that Peter Collins, from the Centre for the Study of Gambling, had been included on the panel as a non-commercial, independent voice. However the SMF's publicity for the event fails to disclose that Sun International's Peter Byrne is the Chairman of the Centre's advisory board. Furthermore, Lord David Lipsey is also on the Centre's advisory board. [16]

"Think while you drink!" The British Nuclear Group Hosted by Stephen Twigg MP with a "guest of honour" An invite-only reception.
Wed 29 Sept "Living dangerously? Government's role in young people's health and wellbeing" The National Youth Agency  
"Food for thought: what should the government be doing about school meals?" The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)  
"Knowledge Society: open to all?" Museums Libraries Archives  

Institute for Public Policy Research events at the 2004 conference

The Institute for Public Policy Research is also organizing a series of fringe events at the 2004 conference, in association with the television station Channel 4 [17]. The events are not as top-heavy with commercial sponsors as those organized by the Social Market Foundation, but some prominent (and controversial) corporations are featured.

The two events that feature Home Secretary David Blunkett are notable because both are sponsored by recipients of contracts issued by the Home Office, which Blunkett runs [18] [19]. Furthermore, Siemens Business Services, which is one of those two sponsors, is a specialist in identity card technologies and could benefit hugely from the future introduction of the UK National Identity Cards Scheme, which Blunkett is championing [20].

The Secretary of the IPPR, Dr Chai Patel, is due to appear before the professional conduct committee of the General Medical Council (GMC) on January 31 2005, on a charge of serious professional misconduct [21].

Institute for Public Policy Research fringe events
Date Title Sponsors Panellists Notes
Sun 26 Sept Open lunchtime slot      
"Patient heal thyself? public health and personal responsibility" Chiron Vaccines Chiron are the new owners of Powderject Pharmaceuticals plc, a firm which previously belonged to the controversial Labour donor Lord Paul Drayson. According to The Guardian newspaper, "Powderject made an estimated £20m from a deal to supply the government with smallpox vaccines in the wake of September 11 2001, at a time when [Drayson] had recently donated £50,000 to the party." [22]
Oscars and Turkeys Award Ceremony      
Mon 27 Sept Policy Breakfast      
"New Deals for Skills: What's changed?" learndirect  
"Who do we think we are? identity, diversity and citizenship" Siemens Business Services

David Blunkett's Home Office gave the contract to build a back-office system for electronic passport applications to Siemens Business Services (SBS) in 2002 [23]. SBS also has reason to be interested in the UK national identity cards scheme, which Blunkett is championing. In May 2004, SBS co-sponsored a conference called 'ID Cards: The Next Steps' [24].

"Unfinished business: Where now for the constitution?" The Law Society  
"Are we Failing Africa?" Oxfam, SABMiller and Save the Children  
"In conversation with....."   Charles Clarke MP - Secretary of State for Education - talks to Steve Richards, Political Columnist, The Independent  
"Irreconcilable Differences? The UK, Europe and the United States" EADS UK  
Comedy Night      
Tues 28 Sept Policy Breakfast      
"Whose renaissance? Cities, citizenship and prosperity" Core Cities and Groundwork  
"Excellence or Equity: Do schools need to choose?" The Sutton Trust  
In Conversation with... Reliance Secure Task Management David Blunkett MP - Home Secretary - talks to David Aaronovitch, Columnist, The Guardian and Observer Reliance Secure Task Management is a beneficiary of contracts issued by Blunkett's Home Office. According to its website, "In the criminal justice sector we operate a wide range of contracts on behalf of the Home Office, the Scottish Executive, government agencies, courts and police authorities across the UK" [25]. David Aaronovitch is possibly The Guardian's most right-wing journalist, and was a keen supporter of the Iraq war [26].
"The politics we deserve? A roundtable discussion"    
Wed 29 Sept Policy Breakfast      
"Sanctions and Sweeteners: rights and responsibilities of disabled people" Leonard Cheshire  
"Can we deliver a low carbon economy?" Arriva, CE Electric and Energy Saving Trust  
"International Question Time - arms, conflict and human rights" Amnesty International, Oxfam, Saferworld  
"A third term worth fighting for?" Compass - direction for the democratic left  
Media Quiz: Print vs. Broadcast      

Other corporate-sponsored events at the 2004 conference

  • Saturday 25 September: Tesco sponsored the welcoming reception for delegates in the evening [27].
  • Tuesday 28 September: Bloomberg is paying for the drinks at an 'international reception' [28].
  • Tuesday 28 September: The Co-operative Group, with an undisclosed private donor, is paying £20,000 to sponsor the gala dinner [29].
  • Tuesday 28 September: "Making it in the UK", champagne reception, sponsored by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 'The theme for the evening is 'Making it in the UK', with the purpose of promoting the needs and requirements of all those involved in the engineering and manufacturing industries in the UK.' [30]

'Branding opportunities' at the 2004 conference

An early page about the 2004 conference on the Labour Party website invited those who "...wish to receive information concerning branding opportunities at this event" to contact Emma Collings at the Labour Party. The page is now only available in the Alexa cache [31].

The cost of organizing a fringe event at the 2004 conference

A September 2004 comment in the weblog of Clive Soley, a British Labour MP, provided some insight into the cost of organizing a fringe event at the conference. The comment was made by Mike Hobday, an employee of The League Against Cruel Sports, and according to him "It's not surprising that organisations seek corporate sponsorship for their fringes. The League Against Cruel Sports, for whom I work, is organising a fringe meeting. By the time you've booked a room in the secure area (to make it easy for delegates to attend), paid for a few drinks and a light buffet, the price is over £1500. So be it. But its very tempting to find someone else to pay for it all!" [32]

2004 conference staff

2003 Labour Party conference

The 2003 conference was held in Bournemouth.

Corporate sponsorship of the 2003 conference

From UK Indymedia, 19th Sept 2003 (information originally from Private Eye magazine):

  • Fringe meetings of Foreign Policy Centre (patron Tony Blair) sponsored by Nestle.
  • Meeting on disability with employment minister Andrew Smith and health minister Rosie Winterton was sponsored by Unum Provident, a huge US multinational specialising in disability and health insurance.
  • Social Market Foundation meeting titled "Labour can bridge the inequality gap" sponsored by Barclay's Bank.
  • Consumer affairs minister Gerry Sutcliffe spoke about consumer debt at a meeting sponsored by the Finance and Leasing Association. The FLA represents the credit industry.
  • The Mobile Operators Association sponsored a meeting where environment minister Alun Michael discussed streamlining planning decisions. The MOA represents mobile operators who frequently need to get radio masts erected against fierce local opposition.
  • The Go-Ahead Group, operator of the Thameslink rail franchise, sponsored a talk by Transport Secretary Alastair Darling called "10 Year Transport Plan".
  • Health minister Rosie Winterton was "taking the pulse of the NHS" at a meeting sponsored by private health company BUPA.
  • Pharmaceutical retailer Superdrug sponsored a private breakfast seminar which invited senior government figures to discuss "democratising health".
  • Culture minister Tessa Jowell was joined by Sky managing director Dawn Airey to discuss "Charter Review and the future of television" - the event was sponsored by Sky and the BBC was not invited.

Conference procedures

The Labour Party Conference is formally the supreme decision-making body of the Party. However, the party leadership has made clear (particularly in recent years) that it will ignore the conference's decisions where it does not agree. The explanation offered is that constitutionally, a British government must be free to make decisions on behalf of the whole population and cannot be bound by any private body.

Delegates to the conference are elected by Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated unions. Currently, unions hold 50% of the votes at the conference - down from 80% in the era before Tony Blair, but still considerable.

Resolutions for debate are put forward by CLPs and unions before the conference begins. In recent years, party members have had less say in what is debated at the annual conference, as the party leadership has tried to move policy-making increasingly into the new National Policy Forums, which meet in private.

The National Executive Committee oversees the conference and if it does not agree with a resolution, the committee may put pressure on the backers to withdraw or remit it. Remittance means that the resolution's backers agree to "send back" the resolution to the National Executive so that it can consider the matter in more detail; this is viewed by some as a mere delaying tactic. The resolutions voted upon are normally composites, meaning that they have been compiled by combining several resolutions put forward by different bodies into a single wording agreed beforehand.

Conference venues

By tradition, the autumn conference is held in a seaside resort. For years this alternated between Brighton and Blackpool but, following a spat with the then Conservative-run Brighton council, a third resort of Bournemouth was introduced. The spring conference is held in less traditional locations. For example, the 2005 spring conference will take place in Newcastle/Gateshead.

Related SourceWatch pages

External links

The 'Conference procedures' section is adapted from the Wikipedia article on the Labour Party conference