For years I was a spectator to party conference. Like others do now, I watched it from the comfort of my own home. On the screen, politicians made speeches and pundits chatted in noisy halls, while delegates in the background walked past trying to style out nonchalance. Actually being there is completely different to the view from outside. If you are there as a non-voting delegate attending fringe meetings (rather than listening to speeches in the hall) it is essentially like a massive family wedding, but instead of talking about Uncle Phil’s hernia and how June’s lad Daniel is off to study sports science in Leicester, you talk about the single market, automation, energy and invariably the goings on within the party.
This year I had both experiences as I attended two of the four days of conference. The difference was jarring. John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Keir Starmer all spoke while I was there, but as I was not in front of a TV or in earshot of a radio until 1am each night, I can’t say anything other than brief headlines reached me. What I did experience was lots of enthusiasm and lots of people talking really passionately about changing things that are broken. I met brilliant people I will meet again in the future. I heard some superbly simple policy ideas from ordinary members, organisations and businesses. I ate dinner with economists who live and breath every tiny detail of possible models for Brexit, and marvelled at their insights. I laughed a lot and featured in hundreds of selfies. I sat down with people from the leaders office and talked over plans for the future and how we can avoid pitfalls. I drank pints with people I’m meant to hate and listened to their plans, I hoped for their success. I heard rallying cries and desperate pleas. I felt no hostility, not even the tiniest bit. I pulled selfie faces with as many people with Momentum badges as I did those without. After hearing me speak, one woman told me that she had completely changed her opinion of me. She gave me a massive and thankful cuddle. My time spent in Brighton left me feeling as if things could be good and the possibilities were widening.
Then I departed. As I became an observer of events, I picked up on the story of Laura Kuenssberg needing a bodyguard because of concerns for her safety. This in itself started to chip away at my feeling of hope. The idea that any woman at work needs or feel the need for protections that her male colleagues do not need is upsetting enough. Hey, I live in these times, I know they are febrile and hateful. But the fact that she needs this to attend the Labour party conference, a place resplendent with women who have in the past done everything they can to protect women, especially women at work, hurt me especially deeply. Myself and other women in the party, such as Harriet Harman and Stella Creasy, spoke out about our disgust. We begged for the leader himself to show public solidarity for a woman threatened in the workplace. The reaction to our public calls killed the hope I felt. I went from being Julie Andrews spinning on a mountainside to feeling as if I was in a prison cell where the walls were closing in.
I have spent years of my life, and thousands of words and speeches fighting against the idea of victim blaming. I have begged people to believe women who have or are being abused. I thought we were getting somewhere. In the Labour party, if I am honest, I thought we had got there and were in the arrivals hall waiting for others to join us. Turns out I was wrong. It seemed that for many who got in touch with me, speaking out against violence and abuse waged at women means only when it is our kind of women, and only so long as they are not being abused by our kind of people. How utterly establishment of them.
“She is walking around conference unmolested. Propaganda.” So said one tweeter seeming almost saddened, it seemed to me, by the journalist’s unmolested status. Another asserted: “Someone there should perhaps video her walking around freely without bodyguards and post it on here.” In essence, they were suggesting a hostile group of people should stalk a woman in her workplace.Then there were many more messages basically saying she was asking for it: “This is due to her BBC confirmed anti Corbyn bias.” The reactions are as bad as the fact that Kuenssberg has a bodyguard. They are the same reactions that almost every victim of gendered violence and abuse suffer. This is the reason they remain silent and the reason as a society we cannot bring down the rate of women controlled, beaten, raped and murdered. These attitudes are born out of loyalty to a man, who I am sure thinks they are abhorrent and will be publicly condemning them. These attitudes are dangerous.
I watched Angela Rayner’s speech from the outside and my hopes rallied. Otherwise, my experience from the outside was not good. Perhaps it was because I was an outside observer of conference on the day it was discussing itself (rule changes) rather than discussing big ideas. But I am not the only one who saw this. A friend of mine texted me on Tuesday afternoon and asked if I was OK, and asked the hell was happening at conference with reports and subsequent denials of antisemitism as well as victim- blaming women. She concluded that if there were an election tomorrow she would not be able to cast a vote for anyone.
As I drove back to Birmingham, I listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on a very dodgy and broken radio. It was back to ideas I can get on board with, plus pledges of unity. I mostly enjoyed it beneath the crackle. Still, I wished he had mentioned directly the hideous reaction to Kuenssberg and asserted that victims are to be believed, and Labour is the place where they will be. But perhaps as he was on the inside of the conference, he didn’t know it was happening.