CILIP CEO Nick Poole reports from the 2017 political party conferences and reflects on the opportunities they offered to promote the library and information profession.
“EXCUSE me”, said the lady beside me, peering at the glowing screen of my mobile phone in the dim light of the Brighton Centre auditorium, ‘but isn’t it time you tweeted something nice about Jeremy?’
September and October are party conference season in the UK – and often feel like an extension of the summer’s “silly season”, for reasons which will be obvious to anyone who has been watching the news. Over three weeks, MPs, ministers, activists, journalists and lobby groups get together to debate, argue, eat, drink and socialise.
This year, I had the opportunity to attend the conferences of three of the main UK parties: the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth, the Conservatives in Manchester and the Labour Party in Brighton.
I was there to meet policymakers and to talk about libraries, literacy and skills. In the process I found out a lot about their current concerns and how libraries can help address them.
Bournemouth: Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dem conference this year took place at the Bournemouth International Centre, the conference facility on the seafront – although the real action was up at the Highcliffe Marriott Hotel, where activists and party leaders could be seen plotting in dark corners until the early hours.
This year’s conference was a fairly quiet, reflective affair, focused on why the party hadn’t picked up significant numbers of new voters in the snap General Election despite their pro-EU position (some wag had been out in the early morning to write “Exit from Brexit” across Bournemouth beach in letters 30 ft high).
The Liberal Democrats have always been a grassroots party, and my most valuable conversations were with local activists and Councillors, where I was pleased to find both strong support for local libraries and a clear understanding of their role in modern society.
The two main policy themes which emerged from my discussions were the urgency of Local Government Financing (without which, all public services including public libraries will continue to suffer) and the need to look at libraries as part of a joined-up approach to Health and Adult Social Care.
Brighton: Labour Party
It was good to be in Brighton for the Labour Party Conference – not least because next year it will play host to the equally important CILIP Conference 2018! The event took place in the huge Brighton Centre on the promenade and it was a good job that it did – with 570,000 members, Labour announced that it is now the biggest political party (by membership) in Europe.
There was something in the air this year – a sense of optimism and – yes – momentum which carried through the main conference debates and fringe events. The conference exhibition felt (appropriately) like a 1970s student rally, with makeshift displays from groups such as the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Labour Business rubbing shoulders with stands from big brands like Bombardier and charities like Breast Cancer Care.
The hectic conference programme offered many opportunities to explore the wider role of libraries (I also took the opportunity to visit the wonderful Jubilee Library in the heart of Brighton).
I attended and participated in debates about health and education policy, about devolution and social care, business and Local Government. I also had the opportunity to speak informally with many Labour MPs and Councillors about libraries.
The most valuable conversations I had were around the recent Carnegie UK Trust’s Shining a Light finding that the largest and fastest-growing user group for public libraries in England is 15-24 year-olds.
I understand from my sources that forthcoming Government statistics might also show a slight improvement in the overall picture for public library usage. These figures tell a story and help to combat the view – still sadly held by some politicians – that libraries are outmoded or unpopular.
Labour sees its election performance as a strong endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and of their manifesto, so many of the policy lines follow directly from this, from nationalisation to the cancelling of PFI deals, widely reported in the national press.
Labour’s was the only one of the three main Whitehall Party Manifestos to set out explicit policies for public libraries (describing them as “vital social assets”), which creates a great opportunity to work with Labour politicians on how these might best be implemented.
Manchester: Conservative Party
Perhaps ironically in light of subsequent interruptions, the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester was a far higher-security affair than either of the other two. The event took over Manchester Central and the immediately adjacent Midlands Hotel, with access via several layers of pass checks and scanners. Getting in also meant running a gauntlet of protestors – I particularly enjoyed being sworn at by a young man with a megaphone on my way in.
Inside, the atmosphere was noticeably different. The first thing that stands out at a Conservative Party Conference is always how smart everyone is. Everyone, from older activists to ambitious young members, is dressed in a suit – a marked difference from the elbow patches of the Liberal Democrats and the slogan-bearing t-shirts of Labour.
Another packed agenda included a combination of fringe events – mostly sponsored by Conservative Home and the Policy Exchange – drinks receptions and speeches in the main auditorium. In the margins most of the conversations were, as one delegate put it to me, about “the BBC – Boris, Brexit, Corbyn”.
This was the only conference to feature a specific session on libraries, led by new Libraries Minister John Glen MP. Unfortunately, the focus was largely on the transfer of libraries to community management – a recurrent theme in my conversations about library development. It was good to note that the minister had taken the opportunity visit SCL Chair Neil MacInnes and his team at Manchester Central Library before conference.
Talking to Conservative activists about libraries, it became clear that there is both support for the value of what we do and a desire for a “fresh proposition” – the sense that the library community needs to continue to adapt to the changing needs (particularly digital needs) of communities.
This gave me a good opportunity to highlight both the clear evidence of demand from the public and the innovation that is already happening every day across the sector, while reinforcing the message that austerity is having a damaging effect on provision, risking further entrenching inequality.
Reflections and “take homes”
Overall, the party conferences this year provided a great platform to engage key decision-makers about the value of our profession. They are large, complex events, but if you know your way around them, there are plenty of opportunities to get your message across.
CILIP currently doesn’t have the resources to mount a major presence at party conferences, but if our new membership model succeeds in attracting lots of new members, this is one of the things we would like to be able to do. Lobby groups such as the Pharmacists Association were able to secure real concessions and influence through their well-funded campaign, and in my view we need to be able to do the same for the information and library sector. We would also like to continue to work with our colleagues in CILIP in Scotland, CILIP Ireland and CILIP Wales to learn from their excellent work engaging political stakeholders in Devolved Nations.
As we continue to raise our voice with politicians, it has been encouraging to get a positive reception. I learnt a lot, built some valuable new relationships and gained an insight into how best to present libraries not just as an agenda in our own right but as a powerful platform to deliver against the central policy issues of our time.
And yes, in the end I did tweet something nice about Jeremy Corbyn