Scenes from the Labour Party Conference

Going to a Labour party conference, as opposed to just hearing about one through the press or the web, is a strange experience. You arrive and find yourself in a bustle of bodies, huddled in quiet clusters or laughing and relaxed in the bar. There’s a touch of a big country wedding, with the same mix of ages and people catching up who haven’t met in person all year. Everyone seems to know everyone else. Looking around you see the odd face you know from the news.

That’s the Reception. Fergal and I then had to find the press office for our ‘Media’ badges of dubious provenance which would allow us to slip past the Stewards into the main hall. Badges pinned on, the press room was a different world to the cheery social atmosphere of the Hotel. The bank of laptops lining three walls. The television carrying a feed of the speaker in the main hall. Nobody talking. One man reading the text of Joan Burton’s speech as she delivers it lets out a long, bored ‘Ooookay’. Nobody else responds.

We drop our coats and go back to the life of the Main Hall. We find delegates streaming out, having just broken for lunch, so we turn on our heel and head into the dining room. Two big plates of tasty fare later, we let out a Tweet announcing where we are. Mark Coughlan and Eoin Bannon pop up to join us.

They’ve both been here for the morning session and Mark tells us that Labour’s Conference seems very different to the Fianna Fáil Ard Feis and the Green Party Conventions. At the FFAF, the motions were all meaningless endorsements of the leadership. The delegates were so disengaged that when the votes came the few who bothered to sit in the hall frequently wouldn’t pay enough attention to take their hands down between ‘For’ and ‘Against’.

At the Green Party Convention, the party was too internally divided to be able to focus on constructively building the party’s policy or organisation. But this morning he’s been struck by how engaged the membership are with the debates. As it turned out, the main debate after lunch would dramatically endorse his assessment.

Keith Martin joins us. He’s Nessa Childer’s election agent in the European election and has been criss-crossing Leinster with her for weeks. Today he’s wearing a Staff badge, a sure sign of someone with more things to do than time to do it. Nonetheless, he takes the chance to talk to all four of us, answering questions about the afternoon session.

The Labour Party have been engaged in an organisational overhaul since Eamon Gilmore was made leader. Meetings have been held around the country and passions have been raised. Today, the monster Report of the 21st Century Commission is being voted on. If passed, some significant changes will reform the way the party governs itself and, more importantly, how it selects candidates to run for election.

Rejecting the hotel’s offer of a 3 inch square of Tiramisu for €7, we go back into the hall and find a patch of seats with Wifi. I’m updating the Liveblog by phone, while around me screens of varying dimensions are being hinged open . Even before the session starts the seats are filling up quickly.

There were 14 speakers, balanced for and against, and the debate lasted over an hour. See Liveblog.ie for a blow by blow account of the arguments. For me, one of the most interesting things was seeing the crowd swelling throughout the debate. Spontaneous bursts of applause greeted speaker’s points and cheers erupted from different parts of the hall when people shared a worry. The room was nervous. Anti speakers started to add passages to their speech stressing that party unity wasn’t threatened by a vote either way. As more people crowded in, with even standing room becoming scarce, you couldn’t but know that everyone there was deeply, emotionally invested in the party as a social creature.

I decided to satisfy my curiosity and went walkabout while the speeches were still on. I wanted to take the mood of the press room to this, very dramatic, piece of political drama.

I needn’t have bothered. Isolated from the hall, with the TV feed providing just the speaker, stripped of the excitement and atmosphere around them, the journalists were already writing their articles on the speech Eamon Gilmore would give tonight based on the supplied text. All they were waiting for was the vote result, so they could slot it into the last paragraph. The Liveblog was being updated with comments in the hall, and from people watching the stream. There were party members and bloggers thrashing out the speaker’s points as they arose or explaining bits of arcane rules as they went. The contrast between the bored, uninterested, even depressive mood in the press room and the hopping, informative engagement and life in the reporting online was too stark not to stay with me.

Tension was building back in the hall. The last 3 speakers were all TDs, all backing the motion. A bit of a loaded finish perhaps, but they made strong points. Outside, the Standing Orders Committee were scrutinising the rules to confirm that a two thirds majority was needed to pass the motion.

The vote was called with a show of hands. To everyone’s surprise, a forest of yes votes were followed by a few lone saplings against. A long history of party arguments and division had prepared the hall to fear the worst. The roar that went up was the realisation that, beyond their own expectation, the Labour Party was preparing to win elections.

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