A Labour rose by any other name…

By Christine Quigley

In the 2008 film In the Loop, British and American politicians scramble to find the committee with the dullest name, believing it to be a cover for a secret war committee that they’re desperate to be invited to. While the Labour Party’s Conference Arrangements Committee isn’t quite a secret, its exceptionally boring name and low profile belies its important status in opposition politics. As Labour Party members across the country are asked to vote for their nominees to this committee, we wanted to take a quick look at what this group does and why it matters.

The Conference Arrangements Committee is a group of seven party members, elected annually to oversee the party’s annual Conference. Its primary responsibilities are to arrange the order of the conference’s agenda, to act as a standing orders committee and to select scrutineers and tellers for votes at conference. So far, not terribly exciting.

However, the Labour Party’s conference is a decision-making conference, with hundreds of delegates from constituency parties, trade unions and affiliates able to vote on motions on the floor of Conference which become party policy. While the leadership and Shadow Cabinet has significant power in creating and shaping policy, organised groups can sometimes win enough support to push through policy at the annual conference. As such, what gets debated and in what order has major significance for the party’s policymaking process and for the positions it takes. In 2019, competing motions led by grassroots party members and by the GMB trade union at Labour Party Conference led to the party committing to a 2030 net zero conference target, while in Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference as Labour leader, his bid to press for a vote on Trident renewal at conference was defeated by delegates.

With ballots dropping for the two constituency representatives to the Conference Arrangements Committee this week, the contest promises to be another hotly-contested battle for control over the political direction of the Labour Party. Four candidates are standing for these two roles – Seema Chandwani and Billy Hayes are the left candidates, supported by groups including Grassroots Labour and Momentum, while Shama Tatler and Mary Wimbury are supported by the Labour to Win group. Chandwani and Hayes are the incumbents and will have been cheered by their relative success so far in receiving nominations from constituency Labour parties – 87 and 81 respectively, compared with 31 and 30 for the Labour to Win slate.

Hayes recently referred to Labour’s party conference as “the auto-correct of our movement” and argued that it “should be a showcase for democracy and debate” that empowers the party’s membership of just under half a million people. Wimbury’s nomination statement called for the conference to provide “a platform for debate putting us on the road to win” and pledged to “demystify conference” for delegates.

At present, Labour is still planning for an in-person conference in September, the first such conference under Keir Starmer’s leadership. Those elected to the party’s conference arrangements committee will have a key role to play in deciding what issues Labour prioritises in the coming months. Over the summer, we’re likely to see trade unions, socialist societies and campaign groups from within the party working to mobilise support for motions for debate at Conference on everything from foreign policy, to Labour’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, to tackling the climate crisis, ahead of a Labour Party Conference that will certainly be worth watching in September.