Encouraging signs for the sector at the Labour Conference

Arriving at the conference centre for the Labour conference, I make my way into a lobby filled mostly with sleek young men in good suits, large older men with aggressive facial hair, bald heads and bad suits, and young women looking slightly uncomfortable in power heels. I pass through security directly behind two elderly patrician types who look around world-wearily, as if they have been to every conference every year since 1973.

“Bit lax on security this year,” one says dismissively, no doubt thinking back to earlier days when the door was heavily guarded by burly unionistas with handlebar moustaches.

In the lobby, delegates are asked to place a ball in a box marked either Balls or Darling, for reasons I do not discover. Alastair Darling himself wanders past, a few moments later, but surprisingly, is not asked to vote.

I am here, as you might expect, to write about charities, and how the conferences will affect them. And the first thing that strikes me is how few charity representatives have come at all. Looking around the stalls on the main floor there are very few: Guide Dogs, British Heart Foundation, the Charities Aid Foundation, and one or two others. Guide Dogs has invited people over to play crazy golf at their stall; initially I’m puzzled as to why, but it eventually becomes clear that this is a metaphor for the difficulty blind people have navigating a street – the world is their crazy golf game, as it were. I also pass a stall for an organisation called One Voice, which I believe is a worldwide anti-poverty movement. But I cannot positively verify this as there is nothing there except a single table and an empty chair. So more like No Voice, really.

Charities are outnumbered, too, by a heavy presence from the tobacco lobby – the fag end of the conference, as it were – protesting about high cigarette taxes.

Yesterday was light on sector-specific events, but I attended a couple. One, focusing on the National Citizen Service, struck me as startlingly unlikely to drum up any support at a Labour conference – surely such a party political policy is doomed the moment the Tories leave power; but the young people speaking make an impassioned case for it nonetheless, and with shocking articulacy, too. Journalists are trained to believe that any flagship political wheeze is doomed to fail, so I had expected the NCS to slide slowly into obscure ignominy; but the young people who have attended it make an extremely strong case for its effectiveness.

Next was an event extolling the power of community organisers, run by Movement for Change. Community organising is another concept championed by the Tories, but one that seems much more likely to get Labour support, given that a line of Labour luminaries – Rachel Reeves, Stella Creasy and Alan Johnson – all queued up to praise the work of the grassroots campaigners on show.

The speeches paused briefly so that Movement for Change could give out the “activist of the year” award, and I wonder how intense the lobbying must be in an award for the best campaigner.

The meeting was more of a love-in than a policy forum, and little was said about how the work of organisers might be furthered. But it is clear that this is something that part, at least, of Labour wants to back – the activist putting pressure on councils and companies to make the world better. At a conference where little is said about the sector, it is an encouraging sign.