Darren Jones returns from Labour's south west conference confident the party is ready to make gains this May.
I had the pleasure this weekend of going back to my university town of Plymouth to attend the Labour South West regional party conference. Hosted in one of the two universities in Plymouth the conference welcomed delegates from across the width and breadth of the South West region- a region that many forget travels from Gloucester to Penzance and from Dorset to Barnstaple (and further still!).
The South West is a unique region for Labour party activists – encompassing the urban hubs of Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and Truro along the M5/A38 corridor surrounded by some of the most highly concentrated agricultural land in the country.
The conference, which was highly attended with delegates from far and near, was a huge success. One might expect the post-General Election conference (in a region with only four Labour MPs, no Labour MEP and no army of Labour controlled councils) to be far from positive but indeed it was.
Whilst there were genuine concerns about the length of time it's taking the national party to reorganise itself in both policy and structure the major feeling I felt from the conference hall was a room full of committed activists ready to get back on the doorstep. As Harriet Harman MP quite rightly proclaimed, “we need a new army of Labour councillors in the South West” and I for one will do my bit to make sure this is the case.
The conference was opened by Jan Royall – who will now take a shadow cabinet role for championing the South West region – and Alison Seabeck MP who provided the conference starter to a challenging but vitally important session by Cllr Patrick Diamond and Ben Bradshaw MP. The session, entitled “Southern Discomfort Again?” was focused on the research of the same name, highlighting the reasons why Labour lost so badly in the last election in the South West. The data showed that Labour has much work to do to regain trust and credibility (especially on tax and the economy) but that, even in less than a year, poll ratings show a resurgence of Labour support.
Whilst the 2015 General Election is already on the horizon delegates knew only too well the importance of both the local elections in only a few weeks and the European elections in a few years. Both sets of elections being not only important for electoral purposes but because of the real issues affecting people in our region. Be it the need for regional investment, such as in better rail and transport provision, or reform of European agricultural and fishery policies or ensuring the voices of labour people – both in urban and rural areas – are heard in the Liberal Democrat and Tory controlled councils of the South West, people knew what needs to be done and they seems ready to do it.
When not in the conference hall delegates attended aptly organised fringes – on public sector jobs in the South West and on the challenge the region has in the run up to the European Elections in 2014 – as well training sessions provided by the Labour Party 'Train to Win' programme in areas such as local media, canvassing and election organising. The pervasive theme of all of these being the readiness with which delegates were keen to learn new skills to take back to their communities to win on the very issue of public sector cuts and in regaining a European representative(s) in the years to come.
But the conference wasn't just about the committed activists we already have. The region has gained over 3370 new members since May 2010 (a third of which being disgruntled Liberal Democrats) and the conference ended with a discussion with NEC representative Ellie Reeves and the South West members of the NPF, focused on the party structural and policy reviews currently taking place.
The South West sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to the Labour movement but what was clear to me – with a plethora of delegates from Labour, Co-op and Trade Union movements – was that, whilst still in a period of rejuvenation, the people that form our party are motivated, talented and ready to bring the Labour message back to doorsteps across the South West in the vitally important years to come; and that further still, the strong bonds we hold with the Trade Union and Co-operative movements in the region, mean that together we can achieve more than we can achieve alone.
Darren Jones was Labour's parliamentary candidate in Torridge & West Devon in 2010. He blogs at www.theadvocatesocialist.wordpress.com/