Over the next few days, thousands of us will be heading down to Brighton for the Labour party conference. With the eyes of the whole country on the party, the week ahead presents a tremendous opportunity for Labour.
It’s an opportunity to show that Labour is fit to govern and ready to seize power whenever the next election comes. It’s an opportunity to build on the tremendous energy and enthusiasm that Jeremy Corbyn has brought to the party. It’s an opportunity to take the remarkable manifesto that Labour campaigned on in this year’s election and make it even stronger, with a radical vision of a changed country that can win over even more voters to Labour’s cause.
The Labour conference in Brighton will no doubt be an opportunity to celebrate that manifesto and that election result. But it must also be a chance to reflect upon a remarkable, yet turbulent year. That means praising what went well, but also being thoughtful and considerate about what could be done better. It also means seizing upon the achievement of denying the Tories a majority this time around, by winning a majority next time for Labour and for working people.
The best way to do that is by looking outwards, united in purpose, willing to debate, argue and disagree before coming together again – showing that our differences are not a weakness but a strength. That there is not one single way, group or ideology that has a monopoly on the truth, but that the strength of our movement lies in its diversity.
Yet it is all too easy to imagine a difference conference – one that is insular and divisive – because in recent years under several leaders, we’ve been there before. Far too often, Labour’s conferences have been inward-looking affairs, appearing to the outside world as events obsessed with rulebooks, contests and faction fighting. That’s hardly surprising, when five of the past seven Labour conferences have either involved debates on potential changes to Labour’s already lengthy rulebook, or have come in the immediate aftermath of a fractious leadership campaign.
Of course this year’s conference will once again consider changes to Labour’s rulebook. Unison will be supporting the changes, achieved through careful consideration and compromise, and leading to a review that must reflect and respect all the traditions of our movement. But it would be senseless for anyone in the party to allow the debate over these proposed rule changes to overshadow what is a vital conference.
This year in Brighton, Labour has an opportunity to do things differently.
What the country needs to see – and what the healthcare assistants, care workers, ambulance staff and other vital public servants who make up Unison’s 1.3 million strong membership need to see – is a resolute focus on the vital work that has already brought Labour to the brink of power.
There has been – quite rightly – a great deal of focus on and praise for Labour’s game-changing 2017 manifesto. It was a document – with a handful of exceptions like Trident renewal aside – that our union could endorse wholeheartedly, and which we were proud to campaign on vigorously.
Now, with the next election an unknowable amount of time away, Labour must take every opportunity to show that it can continue to inspire. That’s why Labour must go further on the issues that really matter to the public, members and trade unionists alike. So on public sector pay, we want to see the conference commit to better pay for all public sector workers – not just scrapping the cap, but to above inflation pay rises that undo the damage of the Tory years.
On housing, we want to see Labour tackle a housing crisis that means young people, families and vital parts of our workforce are priced out of their own communities. On education, health and local government, we want to see a Labour government that matches ambition with investment and turns the tide on cuts and privatisation.
All of this is possible – and all of it can help steer Labour in the direction of government, taking advantage of our party’s set piece event next week to make the case for a better Britain that Theresa May just can’t compete with.
But only if we avoid that other, inwards, divisive conference. So for those who wish to use the week ahead to scapegoat perceived opponents or launch ill-advised witch-hunts against dedicated staff – know that by doing so, you distract from the positive and powerful message that took Jeremy Corbyn to within a handful of seats of Downing Street.
And for those who want to deselect local councillors, effective MPs and divide local parties in the name of political purity – know that by doing so, you give succour to our party’s opponents and risk prolonging our party’s already too long and too damaging period in opposition.
Another country, led by Jeremy Corbyn, is within our grasp. Labour has confounded those who said it could never come this far. But now it is time to take the next bold step together – united and looking outwards. The midwives, social workers and teaching assistants who make up Unison’s 1.3 million strong membership, and millions more in other walks of life who need a Labour government deserve nothing less.