Last week I attended Labour’s autumn conference as an exhibitor. These are my thoughts on how it went.
By Labour’s own standards, they have had a good conference – but it is a sign of how far they have fallen that those standards were so low.
Simply put: the widely predicted civil war didn’t happen, or at least fizzled out as soon as they had to look each other in the eye last Saturday. That the coup attempt failed quite so spectacularly suggests they didn’t really know what they were doing in the first place, which in turn poses serious questions about the competence of Miliband et al.
The people who unquestioningly had a good conference were the left and more specifically Compass. Speaking to some Compassites immediately after Brown’s speech resembled a game of Compass bingo, with them ticking off the stock phrases and themes that he had pinched (freely given, to be sure) from what they had been arguing for eighteen months ago.
Now, I disagree with a lot of what Compass say – in particular their proposals for a windfall tax which violates a pretty important principle of good public policy for me, namely that there has to be a much stronger justification behind it than petty avarice and base popularity. Indeed, while Compass have published the occasional discussion paper which suggests they may have something more intellectually robust to say about tax, broadly speaking it doesn’t get more sophisticated than “squeeze them ’til the pips squeak.” But they have played a canny game within the party itself and now find themselves in the rather odd position of being the party loyallists at a time when the Blairites and Brownites are fighting like rats in a sack.
I don’t think Compass are the answer to making Labour electable again (although they do) but they are what Labour needs to weather the storm in opposition. They provide the party faithful with a comfort blanket. By contrast, the right of the party offers nothing apart from a few ten-year-old platitudes, fear of the Tories and a lot of bitterness. There are no new ideas coming out of “new” Labour. It is no wonder Compass seem so appealing.
The general mood of conference delegates that I detected this week was stoicism. They weren’t in denial and they weren’t panicking, they were simply preparing themselves for the oncoming storm. That is more or less where I felt Gordon Brown pitched his speech as well. If he can keep it up, I think he’ll close the gap – not completely, but by enough to prevent the opinion polls from looking like a complete Labour rout. He might even be able to deny Cameron a majority. But that in part depends on whether the right resume hostilities again.
On the last day of conference, a woman working on one of the other exhibition stands pointed out to me that not only was attendence down this year (which it surely was) but that there were so few black faces. She had a good point – in terms of ethnicity the Labour conference was down to almost Lib Dem levels of hideous whiteness. Partly this could be explained by the relative lack of BME-related exhibitors. The stall for the National Assembly Against Racism – one of Lee Jasper’s fronts which badly needs friends at the moment – was largely abandoned. But I don’t think that entirely accounts for it.
I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the other detectable trend within Labour this year – the authoritarians have won. For all Compass’s warm words about civil liberties, when it came down to it in the counter-terrorism bill, both Cruddas and Tricket voted for extending pre-charge detention without trial. They both then symbolically resigned their places in Compass but it is clear from their website this is nowhere near a priority for the organisation. At the Observer fringe, a big majority of attendees revealed they supported ID cards. The only people arguing for liberalism within the Labour Party are in the Blairite wing, and they are now hopelessly compromised.
For a party that likes to claim that fairness is in its DNA these days, it is clear that they are all too comfortable with the idea of arbitrary authoritarian state control. That battle has now been decisively won within Labour. It isn’t surprising that black people are more alienated from them than ever, as they will inevitably be on the sharp end of this brave new world.