Community power was on Labour’s fringe but didn’t feel niche

October 23, 2023  

This article first appeared in the LGC briefing.

Radical devolution was a key talking point at Labour party conference, but Keir Starmer’s speech didn’t deliver on the detail, writes Katy Oglethorpe.

It was easy to tell it was my first party conference. On the second day in Liverpool I was still bounding along, trying to work out if people I passed were people I knew or people off the telly, getting excited about the latter and unhelpfully announcing their names. Meanwhile those on their second or third party conference this season, and their 27th of all time, were a little more cool, a little more tired, a little more hungover from the animal welfare karaoke party.

And yet, even the most hardened party conference-goers had to admit that this year’s Labour party conference was pretty lively. Hoards of excited 25-year-old lobbyists with blue suits and fresh haircuts. Every event standing room only – from the main conference to the igloo-like inflatables hosting the fringe. Coconut vinegar the only free swag remaining at the exhibition space.

Community power was everywhere.

As for the content – you’ll have heard about the house building and the fiscal responsibility, but community power was also everywhere. Demos, the Fabian Society and Policy Exchange, to name a few, hosted panels on radical devolution. Even the New Stateman’s health panel was titled ‘Should Labour stop trying to fix the NHS and empower communities instead?’ – a provocation which only works because it feels in the realms of possibility.

In other words, community power may have been at the fringe, but it didn’t feel niche.

It was also a reminder of how impactful the stories of genuine community power can be. The new shadow levelling up minister Paula Barker shared a Co-op party panel with We’re Right Here’s Annoushka Deighton, who led the public buy-out of Manchester’s beautiful Stretford Public Hall from the council. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people at this conference,” said the shadow minister, “but you have really touched my heart”.

Co-op party panel with Paula Barker and We’re Right Here’s Annoushka Deighton.

In the main hall too, Starmer promised to “put communities in control,” saying the “walls of Westminster” were too high for most politicians to recognise the needs of local areas.

It is easy to see why this makes a politically appealing – and sensible – promise for Labour at this point. In a conference where Rachel Reeves drew standing ovations for promising fiscal responsibility, devolution to councils and their communities provide a positive note of hope which, as our latest paper with seven Labour council leaders argues, does not depend on huge injections of cash.

Devolution was not the central feature of Starmer’s speech that had been trailed.

Still, devolution was not the central feature of Starmer’s speech that had been trailed, and there weren’t specifics about powers or funds to be devolved.

This may have disappointed some in local government, but the address as a whole was light on policy detail. Indeed, without the glitter-wielding protester it would be difficult to think of what the main headline would have been.

Some will argue this amounts to Labour still drawing a blank on what they really stand for – or trying to please everyone and therefore standing for nothing. On the other, you could argue they are saving their policy announcements until closer to an election. Or that, as journalist Lewis Goodall argued in a panel afterwards, it was a speech focused on storytelling and mood raising above outlining specific action points. It certainly seemed to work on those terms.

I was filled with a kind of optimism, and a wish to continue to be part of something.

By the final evening I was almost persuaded to become a paid-up member. I was not drunk (anyone who saw the impenetrable queues for the main bar would believe me), but I was filled with a kind of optimism, and a wish to continue to be part of something. Whether the sparkle of community power fades any quicker than the glitter on Keir’s suit remains to be seen.

Photo credit: ‘Labour’s Women’s Conference, Liverpool, UK – 07 Oct 2023’ by the Labour Party on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED.

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