Opinion

My visit to Labour Party Conference brought home the underlying impact of poverty

The Labour Party Conference was an excuse to take in the culture and history of Liverpool – but poverty underlines everything

Liverpool skyline

It was a bit like the very early days for me when I got off the train at Lime Street in the centre of Liverpool last week.

In the old days, in the early 1970s, I would be traipsing around to shops selling posters that I had produced, trying to make a living while avoiding the police who wanted me to help them with their enquiries. That was always the euphemism for being chased by coppers for wrongdoings. But my visit to Liverpool this time was not to sell product but to give product away – my mini manifesto to Labour delegates at their party conference.  

I had arranged my travel so that I would arrive with at least two hours to spend at the wonderful Walker Art Gallery, a two-minute walk from the station. I do not know another city in the UK where, arriving at the principal railway station, you fall so soon into such Victorian grandeur. Roman and Greek imitations, big, beefy and overwhelming, await as if to prove that Liverpool is more than a seaport of note.  

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But still, a slave city in that it made much of its money from the trade in human labour, or in the products that came from it. The Beatles songs have been pored over for their connection to slave owners or exploiters – I think it’s Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields that are purported to be the names of properties owned by slave owners. Whatever, the grandeur is eerie because of this connection.  

The last time I was in Liverpool was to give the annual Roscoe Lecture, named after a man who devoted his life to doing his best in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to destroy the slave trade. I had been asked to talk by David Alton, Lord Alton, one of my referees when I applied to join the House of Lords, and an inveterate campaigner for human rights. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first Roscoe Lecture and I hope to return to celebrate this seminal event.  

The Walker Art Gallery has also tried to address the disgrace of this human association with an inglorious past by placing modern paintings by contemporary Black artists among its permanent historic collection.   

History re-occurring is not far away from us it seems, and my Sunday arrival was a day after the Hamas breakout from the Gaza Strip; as if to remind us once again that history comes to hurt us again and again. Resolve history, for it will not go away.   

Liverpool was teeming with people, full to overflowing, and this was not because of the Labour conference. It was the ordinary people of Liverpool who filled the pubs and streets and the out-front tables, with loud overwhelming music and what seemed to me a vast array of Irish pubs. It was the largest outdoor party I had seen for a long time; a spirit in the air, which makes coming to Liverpool one of the most joyous pleasures of travelling out to spread the word about poverty.

Yes, I was here to give out hundreds of my mini manifestos, though the first attempt proved troublesome. I approached an older man and offered him my little piece of apposite literature, but he scowled at me and said he had no need of such things. He had his official programme and pointed at his delegate’s badge. I told him that was why I accosted him: that unfortunately the Labour leadership will need help to focus on poverty because it is the great destroyer of human happiness. For the existing structure of government is created to perpetuate poverty rather than eradicate it. This drew an angry look and then a storming off onto a dangerous road when the crossing lights were red.  

But it was plain sailing from then on as I accosted more people with their delegates’ badges and I was well received by every other person. Invited hither and thither, encouraged and praised for the work of The Big Issue.  

But I should not have come. I was not well. I had a cough and though I took lozenges and brandy to reduce the effects, the cough increased. By the following morning, having spoken and corralled with the many, I was done in and back on the train home, unable to give out more of my mini manifestos. But others took up the shout, and copies of the call for a Ministry of Poverty were handed around assiduously, with even Rachel Reeves taking a copy. I returned home to my bed having only put my toe in the water of Labour conferencing.  

I do not wish the Labour Party any harm, and wish them well on their journey into the next election. But I do wish they would concentrate on this terrible reality that we spend 40% of our taxpayers’ money on maintaining people in poverty, and not ridding us of this poverty.  

At home in bed I watched Ed Balls on a Who Do You Think You Are? programme, and could see he was moved by the discovery that a three-times removed grandfather was a machine wrecker in the days when machinery was destroying the jobs of agriculture labourers. Poverty is everywhere. Poverty stalks and distorts our modern world. And Gaza and its murderous events underline that for us again. Poverty distorts all. Freedom from it awaits the many. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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