POLITICS

Shadow Defence, Transport, Housing Secretaries All Set To Be Squeezed Out Of Labour Conference Speeches

Less time for frontline politicians, but more time for delegates.

04/09/2017 22:29 BST | Updated 05/09/2017 06:35 BST
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Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith.

Labour’s Shadow Defence, Housing and Transport Secretaries are set to miss out on annual conference speeches as the party devotes more time to rank and file members and debates, HuffPost UK has learned.

A string of Shadow Cabinet ministers – including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland spokespeople – are not scheduled to make keynote addresses from the platform at the gathering in Brighton this month.

Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith (pictured above), Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey and Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald are not expected to deliver speeches. Current draft plans also fail to give speeches to Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor and others.

As part of Jeremy Corbyn’s drive to revolutionise the way the annual conference is run, the frontbenchers have been told that they need to make way to give more time to local party delegates to have their say.

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Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey with Jeremy Corbyn.

HuffPost UK revealed last month that Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan have also been left off the draft speaker list as part of the new policy to democratise the event.

Labour’s membership has more than doubled under Corbyn since the 2015 election and a record number of delegates is set to attend the Brighton conference this year.

Off the back of his impressive 2017 election campaign, which deprived Theresa May of her majority, the party leader wants to use the event to underline just how much he’s changing the look and substance of party events.

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London Mayor Sadiq Khan

But not all shadow ministers are happy about the changes and a “robust” debate is expected at the Shadow Cabinet’s meeting in Parliament on Tuesday, as the Commons returns formally from its summer recess.

One source told HuffPost UK that the first one minster knew of the change came  when they asked for a slot for an ‘autocue’ speech rehearsal and were told there would be no need for practice.

Among the shadow ministers who have won slots, most have been told they have a maximum of seven minutes to speak. 

The big keynote speeches will instead come from a “fab five” of Corbyn himself, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornerry, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer.

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Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry.

“The explanation is that we need to allow room for delegates, which is fine. But if you can’t find seven minutes to set out the party’s position in the round on important issues such as defence, transport, housing and international development, it seems a little odd, to say the least,” one party insider said.

Another source was even more critical: “In a year dominated by North Korea and Grenfell, are we really not allowing our Shadow Defence and Shadow Housing Secretaries to make Labour’s case?”

It is understood some shadow ministers are relaxed about the plans, and Grenfell is almost certain to feature in an emergency motion to be debated by the conference, with Healey expected to take part. 

With Corbyn himself winning praise for the way he responded to the Grenfell disaster, compared to Theresa May’s failure to meet residents, the issue is likely to feature at the conference. Shadow Local Government and Communities Secretary Andrew Gwynne may cover the issue in his own setpiece speech.

But others believe more time should have been found on defence too. With Trident debated last year, issues such as the army recruitment crisis, squeezed pay, lack of help for veterans and poor forces housing could instead have been discussed.

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Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald.

Senior allies of Corbyn believe the changes will be welcomed by most MPs, shadow ministers and the party as a whole. They point out that ‘something has to give’ if the rank and file are to be allowed more of a say from the conference floor and on the platform.

Shadow Scottish Secretary Lesley Laird, Shadow Welsh Secretary Christina Rees and Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith - whom Corbyn defeated in the leadership election last year - are also unlikely to get platform speeches.

One defender of the changes said that it was clear that there was no “left-right” agenda to who was speaking, as McDonald and Osamor - key Corbyn allies - were among those excluded too.

A senior ally of Corbyn said that while conference arrangements had yet to be finalised, he wanted to ensure “more time for debate” for party members who had helped drive the 2017 election victory. A reduction in speaking time for some frontbenchers would be a consequence of that, they added.

HuffPost UK understands that the draft conference agenda makes clear the stripped-down nature of the role for frontline politicians. The conference opens on Sunday with the environment, culture and local government and ‘devolution’ the key issues discussed.

Monday morning will be dominated by Brexit, international affairs – with Starmer and Thornberry the key speakers. Monday afternoon sees John McDonnell set out the party’s economic case. Tuesday morning will be dominated by “Investing in Our Future”, with education and skills the key topics, while the afternoon will be a chance for Shadow Health and Social Care speeches.

The conference is cutting short its final day on Wednesday, with Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote speech taking place around noon, rather than afternoon.