Ross McKibbin on the Labour Party Conference
Is it too late for the Labour Party to do anything? The delegates at this year’s conference appear not to think so. They loved Peter Mandelson and were coaxed into being enthusiastic about Gordon Brown. But the role of delegates at Labour’s stage-managed conferences now is to be enthusiastic: that's what they're there for. The electorate outside the doors and the security men is unlikely to be so thrilled. Mandelson’s speech, though it certainly had spirit, was precisely the kind of mannered, self-conscious performance that most voters find really offputting.
Brown’s speech was certainly not mannered. The problem is that what he said should have been said (and done) many years ago or should not have been said at all. The promise to have a referendum on the alternative vote in the next parliament is an act of desperation. After all, the next parliament almost certainly will not have a Labour majority, and though the Lib Dems want electoral reform they want more than just the AV. The Tories, of course, want no reform. We can, therefore, forget about it. In any case, if the party believes in electoral reform (which many MPs don’t) it should have been done ten years ago – and not after a referendum. It should just have been enacted.
The prime minister’s dreary return to crime, social harassment, ASBOs etc was also desperate. They are genuine issues; but not ones that do Labour any good. The Blairites always exaggerated their electoral significance and they represent, anyway, a Dutch auction Labour can’t win. Nor are they really susceptible to this kind of endless legislation or the constant rhetorical ramping up or the continuous increase in police powers – as this week’s coroner’s inquest in Leicestershire has amply demonstrated. Whenever Labour turns to crime and the aspirational middle class you know it has nothing left in the locker.
There were other deathbed conversions – like the restoration of the link between pensions and earnings and free home-care for the elderly. Both are long overdue but to propose them unfunded at a time when the government is committed, somehow, to cutting public expenditure, when Brown has announced a Fiscal Responsibility Act, is simply asking for trouble. It also raises the question of why they weren’t done when the government had the money. The apparent decision to make ID cards optional is, like Fiscal Responsibility, simply fraudulent. And Brown, of all people, cannot attack the bonus culture and sound convincing. It was his child.
There are now only four things Labour can do with any likelihood of success. The first is to abandon the rhetoric of ‘choice’. That cuts no ice (hardly ever did) and merely muddies the water when the government is trying to emphasise its social-democratic character.
The second is to remind the electorate just what a Tory recession is like. Things might be bad today but they are very much better than they were in the early 1980s and 1990s when the real practitioners of recession were in office.
The third is to point out, as the prime minister did at the beginning of his speech, just how run down Britain was when Labour took office and how much its public services, especially education and health, have improved under Labour. (But don’t mention the PFI.)
The fourth is (again) something Brown did: to argue that there are different ways and times to cut public expenditure, and that the Conservatives have almost certainly chosen the wrong way and the wrong time. That is also a useful reply to Nick Clegg’s strangely maladroit suggestion of deep and ‘savage’ cuts. But the government will also have to work out where its cuts will fall and Brown seems very reluctant to choose the obvious places.