Labour’s Top 40 Conference Moments: Everything you always wanted to know but…

Conference can make or break a party leader and has been the scene of some of the most extraordinary moments in the Labour’s history. Here is a rundown of the 40 most important conferences since 1900. 

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This weekend, the party faithful will head down to Brighton for the annual Labour conference. We can trace its origin back to London’s Memorial Hall in February 1900, when the Labour Representation Committee was formed. Traditionally taken to working class heartlands such as Blackburn, Southport, Morecambe and Hull, it moved to the seaside towns of Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton and Scarborough after the second world war. But as the membership changed, so did the setting, and in 2006 it was taken to the glitzy, if not a little corporate, G-Mex in Manchester. It has been held in a major city ever since.

It has been the scene of the most intense political battles in the party’s history, from Kinnock taking on Militant to Blair revising Clause IV. The 1970s in particular saw risinh tensions as Tony Benn took on his fellow cabinet ministers, Healey tried to bulldoze through extra spending cuts and the debates on the floor grew in significance. However, by the early 00s conference had become too stage managed, exemplified in 2005, when an elderly activist – Walter Wolfgang, was manhandled out of the arena for heckling Jack Straw over Iraq.

After the shameful incident, a humble backbencher by the name of John McDonnell said; “Enough is enough – we cannot put up with this treatment any longer. We need a thorough independent investigation into the whole New Labour culture of intimidation, suppression of dissent and the gerrymandering of conference”. This year, we can expect a much wider debate on the party’s future, as the McDonnell amendment winds its way through the conference floor.

So whether this is your first conference or your last, here are the 40 key moments from conference past, charting Labour’s journey from humble beginnings right through to the present day.

Early Days

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February 1900, London – A New Dawn

The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) is formed. Conference consists of delegates from the trade unions, the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, brought together to work on strategies to put working class people in parliament.

February 1906, London – It’s Labour

After fielding 50 candidates in the general election, the LRC is formally renamed as the Labour Party.

February 1908, Hull – Establishing Means of Production

Conference votes that its objective should be ‘the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange to be controlled by a democratic state in the interest of the entire community’.

January 1912, Birmingham – Votes for Women

Conference votes to oppose any new franchise reform that excludes the inclusion of women to vote. The ILP calls for the immediate establishment of universal healthcare.

January 1918, Manchester – Labour Clears the Way

Adopts a proposal to abolish the House of Lords. Expansion of the NEC to 23, with thirteen positions allocated for trade unions, five to constituency parties and four to women. Discussion on a new constitution, which is adopted a month later at a special Nottingham conference.

October 1924, London – No Com Do

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Party massively rejects affiliation to the Communist Party and bans endorsement from Communist members. The vote on accepting Communist Party members into Labour is closer but is still defeated, by 1,804,000 to 1,546,000.

September 1925, Liverpool – Bevin’s Boys

Bevin’s proposal that Labour should never govern as a minority is defeated – a motion that had been strongly opposed by the leadership. The ban on Communist infiltration is reaffirmed.

October 1930, Llandudno – Mosley Mauled

Conference rejects the Oswald Mosley motion, that his proposals on unemployment should be discussed by the NEC. They included pension reform, expansion of the road programme and a raising of the school leaving age. He is elected to the NEC, as unemployment reaches 2.5m.

The Long Road Back to Government

September 1933, Hastings – The Cripps Amendment

The Stafford Cripps amendment commits the party to the introduction of socialism, if elected. The PLP will need to gain a mandate from the National Joint Council before forming a minority government. Votes against rearmament and rejects the Communist invitation to form a United Front against fascism.

October 1934, Southport – War and Peace

Party adopt For Socialism and Peace, advocating central planning and nationalisation of the key industries, services and banks. Adopts War and Peace, which advocates for collective security through the League of Nations and the NEC is given extra powers to stop communist infiltration. Adoption of a comprehensive state health service becomes official party policy.

October 1937, Bournemouth – The Road to 1945

Party adopt Labour’s Immediate Programme, which will later form the basis of the radical 1945 agenda, advocating for the nationalisation of coal, gas and electric. Motion carried on building a campaign to challenge the current government policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war.

May 1942, London – Keep on Keepin on

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Vote on the continuation of the wartime electoral truce is narrowly won – 1,275,000 to 1,209,000. A resolution is accepted on the creation of a social security scheme and the NHS.

May 1945, Blackpool – Let Us Face the Future

Conference rejects the Attlee and Morrison proposal that the wartime pact should continue until the end of the war in Japan. It triggers an immediate general election. Labour adopt Let Us Face the Future, which would form the basis of the 1945 manifesto.

October 1954, Scarborough – Changing of the Guard

Gaitskell and Bevan go head to head for the title of party treasurer. Seen as a changing of the guard as Bevan is defeated by a margin of 2.3 million votes. Bevan attacks Gaitskell and accuses him of being a “desiccated calculating machine”.

October 1957, Brighton – Naked in the Chamber

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Unilateral nuclear disarmament is rejected, as Bevan speaks of going “Naked into the conference chamber” if it is accepted. Adoption of Industry and Society calls for the nationalisation of steel and road haulage.

November 1959, Brighton – Gaitskell Fails

After a third election defeat in a row,  Gaitskell attempts to revise Clause IV, but within the party his proposals face much opposition and he is forced to retreat on the issue.

October 1960, Scarborough – Fight for Your Right

Facing another defeat in his attempt to prevent Labour adopting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, Gaitskell’s urged his supporters to ‘fight, fight, and fight again, to save the party we love’. He loses the vote by 3.3 million to 2.9 million.

October 1962, Brighton – End of a Thousand Years of History

Hugh Gaitskell makes his most famous speech, attacking the creation of the common market. He claims “I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘Let it end’ but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth.”

September 1963, Scarborough – White Heat

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Reeling from the sudden death of Gaitskell, Harold Wilson is able to unite the party and he uses his last conference before the election to focus the electorate’s mind on a young Labour party willing to maximise the rapid technological change. Wilson told conference that a “New Britain” could be forged in “the white heat of this revolution.”

Compromise with Power

October 1966, Brighton – Wilson’s Wobble

Conference rejects the government policy on Vietnam. Triggers a backlash from Wilson, who claims that he does not need to support the conference decision, even though he lost the vote by 800,000 votes. He does win a key vote on incomes policy.

October 1968, Blackpool – Clash Of The Titans

Jenkins and Castle refuse to endorse the conference rejection of a statutory income policy, setting them on a collision course with the trade unions.

October 1973, Blackpool – Labour 73

Motion is rejected on the nationalisation of the top 250 major companies – which included land, banks, insurance companies, and financial companies brought under control. Adopts the radical document Labour Programme 73 which calls for ‘a fundamental shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people’. Labour ends the ‘proscribed list’ of outside organisations, that members are banned from joining.

October 1976, Blackpool – The Bulldozer

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Votes on the nationalisation of the top 7 Insurance companies and banks are passed, in the midst of a severe economic crisis dogged by a plummeting pound. Healey broke off from IMF negotiations, to persuade the party faithful to ignore Benn’s call for a ‘siege economy’  and to stick to the “already painful cuts in public expenditure…That’s what I am going to negotiate for, and I ask this conference to support me.”

October 1978, Blackpool – Winter of Discontent

Conference votes against Labour’s 5% pay policy, which would foreshadow the Winter of Discontent, as the trade unions challenge the party openly.

Fighting for Labour’s Soul

October 1979, Brighton – Our Party Now

Volatile clashes between delegates and MPs, as Callaghan is attacked for his record in government. Policy of mandatory re-selection is accepted and an electoral college for electing leader is proposed. NEC is given power to control the wording of the manifesto.

September 1980, Blackpool – Peace, Jobs, Freedom

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Peace, Jobs, Freedom is adopted as party policy, but no agreement can be reached on Electoral College to elect leader. It turns into open warfare as Callaghan accuses Benn of a “gross travesty of the truth.” Delegates vote by 5 million to 2 million to adopt policy of leaving the common market – without a referendum. and propose to reverse council house sales, and force anyone who has bought one to sell back to the council. Despite infighting, Labour hold an 11 point lead over the Tories in the polls.

January 1981, Wembley Conference – 

Electoral College agreed as 40% trade union, 30% constituency parties and 30% MPs. Triggers the formation of the SDP. Read Civil War: How infighting took Labour and Britain to the brink for a deeper analysis.

October 1981, Brighton – It’s Healey

Healey defeats Benn in the deputy leadership contest, but the left win the majority of the other votes, as conference approves unilateral nuclear disarmament. Benn wins the biggest standing ovation for his ‘Socialism in our lifetime’ speech.

October 1984, Blackpool – Miners United

With Kinnock’s personal ratings falling due to a conflict with Arthur Scargill, Labour head into conference with a 6% poll lead over the Tories. Kinnock is forced to condemn the violence seen on the picket lines. It marked a stark contrast with Scargill, who wowed delegates with a speech about the political nature of the strike, and how it can be used to bring down the Thatcher government. Kinnock also faced difficulty from the police, after conference voted to exclude them from industrial disputes and picket lines. Kinnock claims “there can be no areas where police can be prevented from getting involved”.

September 1985, Bournemouth – You Can’t Play Politics

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Kinnock gives his most famous speech as leader, in which he attacks the Militant Tendency head on. Throughout the summer, Kinnock and Scargill had been at loggerheads over the Labour response to the miners’ strike.  Scargill was pushing for the party to reimburse all the miners losses as a result of the strike action, as well as any money that had been lost by local councils. After attacking the Tories, he spoke of the “The grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I tell you – and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and people’s homes and people’s services.” After running up a huge debt, The Militant influenced Liverpool council had used taxi’s to hand out 31,000 redundancy notices, in the hope of  pressuring the government into a bail out.

October 1987, Brighton – Southern Discomfort

Reeling from a third election defeat in a row, Kinnock wins a big victory on a ‘total policy review’. He promises that there will be no ‘bonfire’ of socialist policies, but the party must adapt for the 1990s. In his keynote speech, Kinnock fails to mention Thatcher by name, in an attempt to woo southern voters back into the fold.

New Britain

September 1993, Brighton – Head On The Block

After four election defeats, John Smith staked his leadership on a proposal to replace the union block vote with a one member, one vote system. A defeat might have forced his resignation, so it was left to John Prescott to bring ‘Old Labour’ back on side. He asserted that “This man, our leader, put his head on the block,” in a memorable speech that helped swing the vote, and started his own push for the deputy leadership.

October 1994, Blackpool – The Clause IV Moment 

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40 years on from Gaitskell, it would be Tony Blair who finally pushed to rewrite Clause IV of the party’s constitution, ditching its historic commitment to mass nationalisation, and introduce a new statement of aims and values. After left-wing dissent was overcome, “the Clause IV moment” became a symbol of the creation of New Labour.

September 2000, Brighton – Mandela and The Sweat Man

A reflective Blair admitted ministers had been wrong over the Millennium Dome and the 75p increase in pensions, in a speech that was described by Jim Callaghan as the best given by a Labour leader for over 60 years. Barbara Castle, attacked the government’s record on pensions and Nelson Mandela brought conference to a close with a speech on globalisation and a renewed appeal over Aids. The media however, focused on Blair’s sweat patches, and as a result Blair never wore a dark shirt again

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October 2001, Brighton – Let Us Reorder This World

Delivered as the world reeled from the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Blair spoke of ‘reordering the world’ in one of his most defining speeches as leader, and tackled the Tories Euroscepticism, claiming Europe is an opportunity rather than a challenge. Blair won rave reviews from newspapers across the world, with the New York Times claiming he’s “America’s most passionate and steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tony Benn received a standing ovation for his last speech to conference, when he argued any military action must be authorised by the UN Security Council.

October 2005, Brighton – Enough Is Enough

A low point in the conference history, as Walter Wolfgang an 82-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany, is removed for heckling Jack Straw. The veteran Labour delegate received a hero’s welcome when he returned a day later, and received an apology from John Reid and Tony Blair. Backbencher John McDonnell said: “Enough is enough – we cannot put up with this treatment any longer.”

September 2006, Manchester – Never Can Say Goodbye

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The end of the Blair years. Cherie stole the headlines, as she told journalists “that’s a lie” when Brown talked about his admiration for Blair. It ended with a tub-thumping Blair speech, which reflected on the journey the country had been on, whilst defending his own decision over Iraq. It ended with a call to arms to beat the Tories; “If we can’t take this lot apart in the next few years we shouldn’t be in the business of politics at all”. The Guardian claimed it earned “placed him in history”, while The Sun called it “the speech of his life” and asked whether Labour had “gone stark staring mad?” to push him out early.

October 2008, Manchester – No Time For A Novice

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As the economy worsened, conference became dominated by rumours of a plot to oust Brown. He tried to save his premiership, claiming “I’m all in favour of apprenticeships. But this is no time for a novice.” It proved to be am effective reassertion of his experience dismissing both David Cameron and David Miliband in one fell swoop.  As the cameras pointed to Miliband, he was forced to push out some fake laughter – and with that, his chances were finished.

September 2009, Brighton – The Comeback Kid

Peter Mandleson returns to conference to save Brown’s premiership. He roused the troops, claiming ““We must face facts. Electorally, we are in the fight of our lives. And, yes, we start that fight as underdogs. But if I can come back, we can come back”. Andrew Marr set an aggressive tone for the media by asking Brown if he was hooked on anti-depressants, while The Sun finally turned its back on the party.

September 2013, Brighton – Ice Cool

Seen as an electoral game changer, Ed Miliband announces a price freeze on energy bills. Portrayed as a return to socialism, it dominated the media for weeks. Ironically, Boris Johnson wrote “i find it astounding that so many people are falling for his Wonga-like offer” as Labour raced ahead in the polls.

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