Back from Labour conference and in a bit of a mess if truth be told. The problem with cheap B&Bs that haven’t been dusted in decades is that they can turn a mild cold into a nasty cough that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I’ve got two days to recover before doing it all again with the Tories in Blackpool. I’m sure the B&Bs there can’t be as chintzy and grotty as the ones in Bournemouth. Er…
Anyway, it’s been an interesting week. Labour conferences – I’ve been to 3 now – are so completely different from Lib Dem ones its hard to know where to begin. Obviously, there is the security, although compared to 2004 where they wouldn’t let you bring fluids into the conference centre and insisted you prove your mobile phone was genuine before letting you through, this one was relatively low key. The beards and sandals combo – largely mythical these days – is replaced by the rather more sartorially challenged baseball cap and crumpled suit. Indeed, everyone who isn’t wearing a trade union approved t-shirt wears suits, making me stand out in my standard attire of jeans and a short sleeved shirt.
The psychology of the two conferences couldn’t be more different either. In Labour, collectivism is all. The mindset, even among relatively sensible people, is that you are either one of us, or you’re the enemy. Back in my student and BYC days I used to encounter this on a regular basis and it would drive me insane; you simply could not reason with these people who would back anyone who was a card carrying member in an instant, no matter how reprehensible they were. Back when I was a student, the Labour membership card was a passport which guaranteed you votes at NUS conference even if you publically denounced Labour and claimed to be an independent. On the other side of the coin, former IDS adviser Quentin Davies can rely on the party faithful to give him a standing ovation.
Labour is quite unapologetic about this mindset. Indeed, Brown’s emphasis on shared values and national identity seems to be a calculated attempt to sell collectivism to the wider public. Around the conference centre there were posters everywhere emphasising the “strength” to make Britain better.
At the Fabian / Centre For Um fringe, both Angela Eagle and Michael Wills readily cited it as the crucial difference between the Lib Dems and Labour and parodied the Lib Dems for flirting with libertarianism. I suspect that my friend Tristan Mills would have responded by saying “if only”.
The simple fact is, collectivism is in many ways a strength of the Labour party. It is what has made them electable over the past decade, and what has made the Conservatives so woefully unelectable. It is this key difference more than anything else which currently appears to be guaranteeing Gordon Brown a win whenever he chooses to call the next election.
And I should also point out that with a few exceptions, I don’t see many Lib Dems who are opposed to collective action per se, so long as it is ultimately centred on the interests of individuals. But I struggled to find any Labour delegates at this conference who placed any emphasis on the individual at all. The bitter irony is that I doubt any of them believe it. Why else have people been leaving in droves? Why else do super-unions such as Unite campaign so hard to defend the interests of the relatively few Remploy workers?
Fundamentally, I don’t believe that the Labour Party believes its own hype about unity through strength. It knows where that leads. But the inability of its members to talk about collectivism as anything other than an unalloyed good does cause me deep concern. We have seen how this attitude causes them to struggle to criticise their superiors. The fact that Tony Blair remained in power – purely because of the lack of enthusiasm for Parliamentarians and members to conduct a coup – ought to worry us. I can imagine far worse people than Tony Blair finding themselves at the top of a political party; if they rose to power in Labour would we see little more than the determined foot-shuffling we’ve witnessed over the past four years? For the good of the country we must hope that Labour reconciles itself with liberalism again before too long.
Back to the Fabian / Centre For Um joint fringe, much of this debate was taken up with allegations about “dirty tricks”. Most of the attacks came from a contingent from the Colchester CLP. Now, I don’t doubt those delegates’ sincerity, nor am I naive enough to believe that no Lib Dem has ever indulged in dirty campaigning, but it is rather ironic that almost a year ago to the day, a Lib Dem councillor in Colchester was outed in a national newspaper.
I was pleased that Vince Cable and David Laws did a grand job at defending the party’s record under pressure, not resorting to crowd pleasing tactics by condemning alleged activities that they knew nothing about. Yet Michael Wills was keen to continue twisting the knife, making the “no smoke without fire” smear that because Labour and Tory MPs agree that Lib Dems are the dirtiest campaigners, it must be true.
To make such a statement, without providing one scintilla of evidence, is to indulge in the very same groupthink that Miranda Grell manipulated in Waltham Forest last year. He ought to know better. The Lib Dems threaten an order that both Labour and the Tories have an interest in defending, and it is extraordinary how they can be blind to both their own faults and each others. The recent by-elections showed both parties at their worst, yet that gets forgotten. Tom Watson‘s reliance on the rent-a-mob got him promoted. The Tories’ attempts to portray Mark Hunter as a rapist in the Cheadle by-election even gave ConservativeHome pause for thought, but it was quickly forgotten. I could go on, but Rob Blackie has already done much of the work for me.
When senior MPs make such allegations in public, it is unfortunate politicking. When they do it in the relative privacy of an audience of mainly Labour members (albeit were at least one journalist was present), it smacks of self-delusion. No-one is pretending that the Lib Dems are perfect, but when Labour have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar so many times, it is time to stop being so precious.
Overall, my advice to Labour friends is to be careful. Don’t believe your own hype. This week I saw an awful lot of that. The biggest problem with Labour is not that it’s evil but that it still believes it is whiter than white. With the scapegoat Blair now safely dispatched to the middle east, that delusion will only continue. A party that believes that is capable of anything, which is how it ended up invading Iraq, doling out peerages to people it was indebted to and marginalising human rights in the first place.