There was a time, not so long ago, when the Labour Party conference was a media dream. Bristling personalities scrapping over policies and members across the spectrum using the fringe to try to influence those trade unionists who hadn’t already had their arms twisted by their general secretary’s enforcers.
It was mostly, it must be said, a lot of hot air because when it all came down to it the party and trade union establishment usually won the day as the block votes poured in. But even so, there were some pretty dramatic scenes as Scargill and the miners made their case, Kinnock smacked down Militant and Denis Healey defied the boos and jeers to make the case for supporting the IMF deal. The early 80′s proved to be the turning point, and may well be shown to be the last throw of the dice for the Labour left, as issues around mandatory re-selection, Britain’s relationship with Europe and the right for party members to have a say in the election of the party leader prompted the likes of Owen, Jenkins and Williams to throw their rattle out of the pram.
Way back then, Constituency Labour Parties had hotly contested debates around issues like industrial democracy, equality, the NHS and the role of the private sector, and nuclear weapons. Resolutions would go to conference and battles would be fought out as the conference arrangements committee attempted to
water down or neuter composite out anything the leadership perceived to be too left wing.
What has it all come down to?
Well, I don’t want to rewind back to the days when the media had a field day as sections of the party treated conference as a forerunner to World War 3… but… the fear of that has given us something possibly even worse. This week in Liverpool we will see a glorified trade fair surrounding a stage-managed combination of a rally and a party political broadcast. There will be trite ‘chats’ on sofas on the stage where, beneath some trite and fatuous slogan, a number of Shadow Cabinet members, junior NEC members and the odd ‘celebrity’ Labour supporter will talk to the assembled delegates about ‘issues’, and if the bored rigid delegates who have been dragged away from the stalls offering fresh juices, trinkets and stress balls can be roused to ask a question, they too will be allowed a walk on part. Meanwhile on the fringe the chattering classes will rabbit on about Purple Labour, Blue Labour, bloody anything but Red Labour… before adjourning to a posh hotel for canapés and cheap champers provided by some bleeding insurance company or local authority outsourcing company.
What about the policy debates? You may well ask.
This morning we wake to discover the Glorious Leader is able to reveal a new Labour policy on tuition fees. Apparently, following no obvious signs of discussion with anyone, the Party leadership have determined that we have a new policy on tuition fees, or at least, a new level that we think the electorate may swallow (of course, they won’t, because when people start to take the figures apart, for most students the difference between £6,000 and £9,000 is totally irrelevant). The new ‘policy’ is not something that will need to be decided upon for nearly four years. It didn’t have to be rushed through hours before conference started. So why on earth announce it now? Surely, as they say in these parts, that’s all arse backards.
The answer is: because they could!!! It allows them to show the world (or that tiny section of it that gives a toss) that they are in control. They make the important decisions, not the hapless souls who have turned up at the trade fair, so the world doesn’t have any reason to worry.
Democracy is in safe hands.