You might have thought the first Party conference after we lost power and did so badly in the general election would be a subdued affair tinged with introspection. But the atmosphere at this year’s conference was intense and energetic. Of course it had its moments of drama (especially the leadership election results on the day before conference) but none of these dented the clear sense that the Party is determined to move forward in a confident and united manner.
The media, ever keen to find a negative angle, seemed to be reporting on a different event from the one we attended. Yet the election of the new leader and his messages have accelerated the pace at which people are joining or rejoining Labour.
Much was made about the new generation, but Ed Miliband was at pains to stress that it’s not about age but about attitude. He managed the tricky manoeuvre of breaking with the past while clearly retaining Labour values and acknowledging the considerable achievements of the Labour government.
This year’s Brussels Labour fringe meeting, organised with the EPLP, attracted a record attendance of 250. Chaired by Brussels Labour’s honorary president, Neil Kinnock, the speakers included Emma Reynolds, a former Brussels Labour treasurer and now an MP, who began her intervention with a plug for Brussels Labour. Another speaker, Douglas Alexander MP, commented that Emma is one of the stars of new intake with a brilliant career ahead of her (she is already one of five Labour members on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee). The other speakers were Massimo D’Alema, a former prime minister of Italy, and Richard Howitt MEP.
All speakers stressed the importance for the UK’s own interests of active involvement in a strong EU. At the global level, the G8 has given way to the G20 but there is a real risk that the power relations are being dominated by the G2 of the United States and China: this needs to be turned into a G3, with an active and united EU voice.
Richard Howitt emphasised that a strong common EU foreign policy is vital for British national interests. The new External Action Service had been difficult to set up because of the lack of preparation, but thanks to Cathy Ashton and the EP’s use of its new powers, it was now taking shape. Massimo D’Alema emphasised the potential of the EAS but the need for a strong policy: the mere existence of it was not a guarantee of effective external action.
Douglas Alexander urged that we move on from talking about the reach or otherwise of the EU to understanding the implications of the rise of Asia. China’s role at the Copenhagen climate talks showed the change taking place in the balance of power. We need too to move from a narrative which depends on making the case for the EU by emphasising its role in keeping the peace (important but backward looking) to a forward looking perspective with an emphasis on four key areas where an EU collective approach is vital: climate, security, trade, and poverty.
Emma pointed out that the current government is demonstrating an outdated, imperialist view of the UK’s role in an increasingly multipolar world with a reliance on bilateral rather than multilateral relations. They overestimated their UK’s role in the world and underestimated the EU’s. As she put it, for William Hague, nostalgia is the way to the future.
Belinda Pyke | Chair, Brussels Labour
More conference photos are available at flickr.com/brusselslabour