Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

It was that faintly implausible radical and revolutionary, Clem Attlee, who once likened the Labour party annual conference to 'a Parliament of the movement'. And so, indeed, it used to be before our current Great Helmsman and his chums on the central committee put an end to all that. The party may still make its autumnal trip to the seaside but all it does when it gets there is to lay on a pageant or present a TV carnival. Worse than that, it is now essentially a commercial undertaking, with even journalists -- below the rank of editor or political editor -- required to pay for the privilege of being allowed into the hall to listen to the leader's speech. When I went to my first Labour party conference 50 years ago, there were no extensive arcades in which big business set out its wares, no fat cats jostling to get into the posher receptions and few, if any, 'distinguished visitors' (whom we probably would not have recognised even if they had turned up). Instead, there was a week of red-in-tooth-and-claw debate, with only the Reynolds News concert on the Sunday afternoon providing a preliminary lull but still notably failing to soothe the savage breasts of the assembled comrades. The truth was that, despite the mollifying efforts of the Co-op orchestra, most of them could hardly wait to get down to hand-to-hand combat. Eheu fugaces or, as Harry Davidson used to say on the BBC Home Service, those were the days.

In my more nostalgic moments I occasionally find myself wondering which have constituted the real defining conference events in all the years I've been attending. I missed Hugh Gaitskell's brave 'fight, fight and fight again' speech at Scarborough in 1960, but I was there in Bournemouth in 1985 when Neil Kinnock rounded on Militant and virtually destroyed it in its Liverpool base with that one contemptuous phrase about 'the grotesque chaos of a Labour council -- a Labour council -- hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers'. (David Owen told me long afterwards that, when he watched Kinnock say that on television, he immediately knew that the SDP was finished. ) But I still think I would award the palm to the roar that went up in the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool when Nye Bevan's victory over George Brown for the party treasurership was announced in 1956. One thing New Labour has never seemed able to grasp is what a safety valve the old-style conference represented for the party's foot soldiers. All right, who got elected treasurer didn't really matter -- any more than who came top of the constituency section of the national executive -- but the sense that they were winning and carrying off such trophies did wonders for the morale (and, therefore, the numerical strength) of the rank and file.

Nowadays, of course, NEC elections hardly matter. That's the way the new gang wanted it, especially after Ken Livingstone's act of lese-majesty in keeping Peter Mandelson off that once symbolic body in 1997. The state of its current insignificance is shown by the manner in which Mark Seddon this week gave up his National Executive seat, which he's held for some six years, to go off and work for al-Jazeera in New York. A distinguished editor of Tribune for more than a decade, at a mere 44 Seddon might well have seemed a natural recruit to Labour's parliamentary party. …

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