Bursting the bubble: We’re Right Here at the party conferences
Will Brett, Campaign Director
To get into the secure zone at a Labour party conference, you first have to find your way through a crowd of people seeking to thrust leaflets into your hands. On one side are the business-suited lobbyists and think-tankers worried that their fringe event will be poorly attended. On the other are the sloganeering radicals used to being ignored. Hardened conference-goers will bend forward a little, fix a faint smile on their faces, and quicken their pace. The job is just to get through without delay.
On Monday morning, standing in the middle of this crowd, was a group of schoolchildren handing out stickers. They were calling for universal free school meals.
…try telling a year 4 kid from a Liverpool primary that you don’t support free school meals.
It’s easy to say no to your average leafleter. And even if you are drawn into conversation, it’s not hard to set out why you don’t necessarily agree with everything they say. But try telling a year 4 kid from a Liverpool primary that you don’t support free school meals. That you won’t take a sticker. Try looking them in the eye and claiming it’s important for Labour to avoid being stereotyped by the Tories as fiscally irresponsible or nanny-statish.
It just doesn’t work. And there’s a reason for that.
Most political discussion takes place in a bubble, its participants more or less uncontaminated by reality. These discussions tend towards the abstract and opaque. Layers of metaphor and tactical thinking are piled one on top of each other, until the original issue at stake is lost underneath all that cleverness.
Most political discussion takes place in a bubble, its participants more or less uncontaminated by reality.
For outsiders it sounds impenetrable, like a different language. And that is a huge problem for the practice of politics. Most speeches or interviews given by politicians are attempts to translate the results of all of that abstract and tactical thinking back into the language of everyday life. But it is not at all easy to do this, and most fail. When you turn on the radio or the TV, you know instantly if it is a politician speaking. They will be using that unmistakable tone and vocabulary. It is the sound of someone trying to present the results of a whole lot of intellectual contortions as something like ordinary speech.
So when ordinary speech does, in fact, intrude into the political bubble, it can be devastatingly effective. That is why the case made by those kids was unanswerable. And in Liverpool this week, as well as the Conservatives’ conference in Manchester last week, the community leaders who speak on behalf of We’re Right Here did something similar.
Annoushka Deighton, who led the buyout of the beautiful Stretford Public Hall (the location for our launch video), was on a panel at Labour Conference organised by the Co-Op Party. She spoke about the power and pride unlocked when communities own local assets, but also the frustration that it should be so hard to do something so obviously beneficial for local people. Annoushka’s words visibly landed. The new Shadow Minister for Devolution Paula Barker said: “I’ve shared a panel with many people this week, but you have really touched my heart.” Paula then went on to re-affirm Labour’s commitment to a Community Right to Buy.
There were similar scenes that day on other panels – Sacha Bedding connecting with the mayor of South Yorkshire Oliver Coppard and Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy on a Labour Together debate about local power, and Inayat Omarji enlivening a discussion about social connection (organised by the Together Coalition) with his inspiring story. And the week before, Claude Hendrickson cut through the strangely muted atmosphere at Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, connecting with a series of politicians from the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham.
The power of community is not lost on senior politicians.
The power of community is not lost on senior politicians. We heard Rishi Sunak open his conference speech with a riff on the importance of community and the values that stem from this. And then we heard Keir Starmer state unequivocally: “Give power back, and put communities in control.”
We’re hopeful that our campaign, along with the efforts of our allies and supporters across civil society, is starting to have an effect, and that politics will soon catch up with what local community leaders are achieving in their neighbourhoods. But in the meantime, we have to keep finding ways to burst the political bubble with the simple act of ordinary speech.