Many years ago, I did enjoy a political conference. It was the Scottish Liberal conference (as they were known before Dr David Owen charmed them into a marriage of convenience with his Social Democrats). I can’t remember a word that was said, but I do remember the home baking in the conference catering hall.
Of all the Scottish Tory conferences I reported on for radio and TV during Mrs T’s decade in Downing St, I can really only separate out one of which I have any recall. Once again, the lofty rhetoric ringing out from Perth Town Hall wasn’t the reason.
My memory is sharp because of what drowned it out for our listeners. Because we had to follow a two-minute news bulletin, and my co-presenter and I had told our listeners that we’d have the Prime Minister Thatcher’s speech, live, and because she was due to start at 7pm, my co-presenter Fiona Ross had to use her considerable powers of intimidation to persuade the Tories’ publicity chief to detain the Lady ever-so-slightly so that she would start her conference call to arms just as our news was ending. Unfortunately, none of us knew that the church beside the town hall had arranged a 7pm start for bell-ringing practice. Memorable.
But to be fair, some conferences do produce a saying that sums up the beliefs, or strategy or core strength of the party for the viewer at home. Neil Kinnock’s speech as the leader of the opposition when he reminded comrades of the Labour Party’s proud history in making it as natural for the children of the working class to go to university as the children of rich middle-class parents was one such occasion. The man dubbed the Welsh Windbag also electrified conference when he made clear his contempt for the Trotskyite councillors who took taxis to dish out redundancy notices to Liverpool council workers.
David Steel’s “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” and Margaret Thatcher’s “U-turn if you want to . . . the lady’s not for turning” were good, but not good enough to justify a week listening to super-loyal apprentice cabinet ministers, gullible activists and some suspiciously over-excited uber-activists.
But from the brief glances I’ve seen of this year’s Labour conference, and the impression I’ve formed from some recent TV broadcasts, “things have failed to get better” . . . to borrow from the cheesy anthem adopted by Labour in the Blair years.
What is Labour for these days? The question was put to some young conference delegates. Well, according to the voice of the future, Labour’s about improved public services, higher standards in education, oh yes, and growing the economy.
Call me a cock-eyed optimist, or old fashioned, but isn’t the Labour Party supposed to be about working for a fair society? Isn’t it supposed to defend the rights of those unable to defend themselves? Isn’t it an article of faith that the party should lead the Labour movement in transferring some wealth and power from those who have a great deal to those who don’t have enough? And what about eliminating poverty?
If the Labour Party’s not about these things, what do Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander and assorted Scottish leadership hopefuls mean when they emote about “the need to re-engage with the Scottish people”?
Presumably, the SNP successfully engaged with the Scots, so is Labour going to copy the SNP? And since the SNP’s success is attributed (wrongly) to Alex Salmond’s strength of personality and leadership qualities alone (he’s good, but it takes more than one good man), is the Labour Party’s quest to find a man who will dazzle in debate rather than dedicate its energy to delivering a fairer Scotland? Labour will re-engage with the Scots when it comes clean on the reasons for the Scottish economy trailing behind the English economy, and when it produces a workable plan to change the management of the Scottish economy.
If, like a strand inside the Scottish Tories, most Labour Party members just can’t, more emotionally than intellectually, consider the proposition that Scotland will have to establish legal equality with the English state, then it’s time for Scottish Labour to build the case for the political union.
That means we’ll have to hear what changes Scottish Labour will make to taxation in Scotland alone, because the record of doing it Westminster’s way has failed to improve the lot of our poorest, and take advantage of the good fortune of having an abundance of the basic requirements of a manufacturing economy – water, oil and gas, and loads of renewable energy, not forgetting a well-educated workforce.
Labour has to re-learn its language.