29 September 2011

Labour Conference sketch

A political party eats itself not when arguing, but when it isn’t fed

Ed Miliband & Justine Thornton, Labour Conference, 2011
With three years or less until it again has chance of power, you may have thought that Labour would be engaged at its present conference in some debate about where it wants to go. You might also expect that it would be seeking some insight into why it came off the road. 

But a spectator watching Labour's Liverpool gathering over the last few days would probably get the impression that many delegates think they are driving solo - up for their own political X Factor audition, rather than discussing how best to get those Xs against a Labour candidate’s name. The moving of policy discussions to the National Policy Forums and policy commissions has done its job.

So the conference watchwords have been ‘anecdotes, advice or accomplishments’ - do you want to know what the NHS was like in the 1990s; would you benefit from some personal public health pointers or would you be interested in knowing about the fab school/hospital/charity that the speaker leads? 

And the plan for the event appears to be: you can do the politics and discussion elsewhere; at conference we are going to educate and inform you. 

The theatre of dullness

On Monday, amongst the many speakers I watched on TV, only the delegate from Maidstone & the Weald - sixteen-year-old Rory Weal - had any vim. He was rewarded with a paternal hand on the shoulder from Miliband for his speech about how his family has been saved from penury by the welfare state, but without him mentioning his father, a former millionaire property developer. I wish I could lay money on Weal's political future.

At Labour conferences in the past more delegates were like Weal - providing political theatre and never shy about the limelight. And those from the socialist redoubt constituencies, like Islington North, used to add many fireworks. Yet the present day delegate from that place was quite so underwhelming that my pen expired when trying to record her name. 

Other speakers also made politics-free contributions. During the time spent on the Education and Skills 'debate', Andrew Chubb, an Academy head from East Yorkshire, took the opportunity to deliver the speech, that he is doubtless repeating around now to the parents of his next year’s prospective intake,  about the successes of his school. Maybe Labour conference is the place for sales propositions; it might help the connected take their school, or other brand, national.  

Only many delegates should more carefully check the timings of these pitches. Several less polished speakers, who had clearly spent time penning their surgically crafted phrases, ended up just throwing them away. Flustered and over their allotted time, they spewed them out, rapid-fire, over an irritated chair telling them to ‘wind up now’. 

I wonder if many of these speakers were surprised that these signature soundbites that they used were identical to those spoken by others on the conference stage. Were ‘Key Conference Phrases’ Lucky Bags on sale to delegates arriving at Lime St. Station.

Pzazz this party conference doesn’t possess. And as a sympton of that, whether good or bad, Labour leaders have been bereft of any rhetorical flourish since Kinnock. Miliband just hasn’t got it.

And many conference delegates, despite the well into middle age profile of most of them, seem to have no gumption or presence - little historical or other political knowledge outside the here and now.

They will borrow, willy-nilly, a useful sounding phrase from a scrapbook of political terms. So in the ‘Prosperity and Work’ discussion, any lingering members of the ‘red shirt, red tie, red socks, red underpants’ brigade must have been startled to hear, from Tony Burke of Unite, that what was needed was an “Alternative Economic Strategy”

But no, it was not the return of that centre piece of Labour policy from 30 years previously, but just a random phrase that the union man had chanced upon.  

The key speakers 

And the star turns? The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones (looking like a member of the Cambrian branch of the family of the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley) spoke like his speech had been written by the ‘Visit Wales’ PR team. 

Whatever original thought had been inputted into his address must then have been overwritten by the software that is clearly in to make sure all the key phrases go in, and for the requisite number of times, into all the speeches of the leading players. “We can make that future a reality” said Jones, with maybe a hint of embarrassment.  

What are the political problems in Wales? What contribution or changes to Labour party policy might the leading Welsh member have in mind? If the First Minister knew, he was not inclined to say. “Thanks very much for that inspirational speech, Carwyn” replied the Conference Chair, without even a smidgen of irony. 

Or Ed Balls? Looking very sharply dressed, he read out what had been given out, and well reported upon, hours before he walked up to the rostrum.

Apart from that it was hard to tell whether Balls was more animated expounding his revisionist views of the tasks of the Labour Party (“Working night and day to make savings and cut bureaucracy”) or puckering up to kiss Harriet Harman after his speech when she was still far across the stage. 

And so on to next week’s Conservative party conference. With the dark storm clouds over the economy and the future of the Euro as well as the compromises with the Liberal Democrats, can it possibly be as apolitical as Labour’s

Clive Power

(photo - NCVO via ww.flickr.com/people/ncvophotos. Some rights reserved by NCVO.)