Dear lord, what a dispiriting spectacle. Every year, you think the Labour Party conference can’t possibly get any worse, and every year it seems to. Some of this is probably the mind playing tricks – after all, the supremely aggravating Mr Tony has left the stage – but it’s still bloody awful.
What’s worse is if you can remember when the Labour conference provided some entertainment. Big set-piece arguments – over unilateralism, say, or Europe, or Barbara Castle kicking up about pensions. Union barons casting millions of block votes. Blokes with dodgy combovers and northern accents urging the comrades to support Composite 11. Practised stump speakers who were not only good at speaking but, more to the point, had something to say. That’s all gone now. The whole event has been slicked into a vacuum. The relentlessly rightist politics are something one expects of New Labour, but the sheer tedium is almost as offensive. If your memories are of Benn and Scargill – or Foot or Kinnock, for that matter – then what price spending your valuable time listening to Millipede and Wacky Jacqui and the rest of the lightweights? Life’s too short.
There are, though, one or two points of interest. The first is the unbelievable gormlessness of the press pack. Since the 1990s, both Labour and the Tories, largely due to media demands, have changed their constitutions to make it almost impossible to mount a challenge to the sitting leader. The result is not improved democracy in either case, but a leader chosen by media anointment. Mr Tony, of course, got the top job in the first place because the papers had declared him the crown prince in advance. The walking vacuity Cameron beat out the serious, thoughtful – and conservative – Davis. You’ve seen plenty of that with the pillorying of Brown over the past year, by the very same pundits who spent years hymning him as an economic genius. No wonder Sir John Major observed wrily that Brown had been praised too much and was now being blamed too much.
But then Gordon delivers a reasonably competent speech and suddenly the man who had been dead in the water was a contender again. Really, this stuff writes itself.
The more substantial point is the sudden collapse of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, and it strikes me that if Labour retained any of its populist instincts, now would be a good time to dust them off. There is an obvious difficulty in that much of Gordon’s voodoo economics relied on a consumer boom resting on a mountain of personal debt, itself resting on an unsustainable property bubble. This would require a bit of spinning. But the polls suggest that, while the punters think Brown has handled the situation badly so far, they don’t on balance blame him for the crisis – they apportion much more blame to the City spivs. This shouldn’t be surprising at a time when even multimillionaire Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who himself made a killing in the property market, is talking about Wall Street greed. And it’s beginning to filter through that food and fuel inflation are being stoked big time by speculators.
All in all, if Alastair Darling had announced plans to take a bunch of hedge fund managers out and shoot them, I think the population as a whole would have responded sympathetically. Any social democratic government worth its salt should be declaring war on these parasites. But Alastair didn’t do that. Insofar as he has any plan, he seems to be leaning towards raising the tax burden on an already overtaxed working class. You can just see the New Labour bosses saying, “Regulate the City? We can’t do that! Rupert wouldn’t like it!” That’s if the thought occurred to them in the first place, which I doubt.
No, the nearest thing we saw to populism came from, believe it or not, Lady Harman in her speech on the equality agenda. Now that’s a phrase that sends chills down Norn Iron spines, and for quite a long stretch of her speech I was wondering whether it had been written by Gerry Adams. In any case, who’s been in power for the last eleven years? But the delegates didn’t seem all that enthused by her muted references to class. What really got them going, and brought the cheers up for Harriet, was her getting stuck into kerb-crawling and lap-dancing. Neither a practice that I’m going to defend, but that probably tells you something about the priorities of the delegates.
Forget about the Large Hadron Collider. I think we’ve just been looking at a black hole.