Like Wimbledon and the Proms, the annual ritual of the Party Conferences has been absorbed into our national life. The TUC Congress opens at the end of August, still good for seaside holidays and very much a family event for trade-unionists and their wives. This year the Liberal Democrats followed a fortnight later, swallowed up like every party by the vulgar vastness of Blackpool, as the whole of Northern England arrives to see the Lights. Labour took the third slot, also at Blackpool, and the Conservatives brought matters to a close, at Bournemouth, well into October. There was a time, long ago, when lesser resorts like Margate, Scarborough and Llandudno were on the Conference circuit. But for many years Blackpool and Brighton were alone capable of accommodating the large numbers of delegates, visitors, press, lobbyists and hangers-on. The delegates, often making their first and only visit to Conference, compare notes, touch the hem of their readers’ garments and marvel at it all. They attend fringe meetings with the eagerness of students in the early days of the WEA. But the Conference proceedings remain the set-piece around which the jamboree revolves.
As Lord Callaghan took his place on the platform to hear Neil Kinnock, he will have recalled with a shudder the 51st Annual Conference of the Labour Party, held just up the coast at Morecambe in 1952. The young Jim Callaghan spoke twice on that occasion, first against the denationalisation of road haulage by Mr Churchill’s Cabinet and then in a sharp attack on the hypocrisy of the Bevanites, who had swept to victory in the previous day’s NEC elections. It was a bitter, ugly and exhausting Conference. Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton, who had helped to carry the Labour Party through the wartime coalition and the Attlee Government, lost their places on the National Executive to Harold Wilson and Richard Crossman, the candidates of the Left. Dalton sulked, but Morrison made a shrewd and emollient speech against self-gratifying Conference resolutions which failed to impress working-class voters. Crossman himself was booed for confessing his intention to drop the ‘very lively and fiery things’ he had planned to say before he knew of his election. The main contribution of the miners’ leader, Will Lawther, was to tell left-wing hecklers to ‘Shut your gob.’ For Labour, it was a Conference never to be forgotten and never quite to be repeated in its awfulness.
To the politically fastidious, a Labour Conference was always disconcerting. Speeches from the floor were solemnly read or delivered with mounting hysteria. Clumsy populist sentiments and extravagant doctrinaire claims were equally applauded. Unpopular remarks might be shouted down. But in an age when the great set speech was increasingly rare and platform oratory out of fashion, a major Conference speech, especially from a party leader, brought a surge of excitement at the prospect of being able to say: ‘I was there.’ ‘Do you remember Nye at Brighton in 1957?’ the old sweats would say, and to the new generation in the bars they were recalling a rendezvous with history.
As television began to send messages to the watching voters, it was in the nature of the Conservatives, disciplined, respectable and deferential to their leader, to adapt most readily. Little change was required for viewers to be impressed by the natural government of Britain. As for the Liberals in their annual Assembly, they were a minority party, seldom expecting to be taken seriously and relying on a single performance by Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe or David Steel to give them whatever credibility they could earn. It was Labour that faced the real problem. Defeat for the leadership – often following a bitter row – saddled it with policies unacceptable to its own MPs and profoundly unattractive to the public. In particular, from the days of German re-armament through to Cruise missiles and Trident submarines, defence was debated in terms unsettling to the voters. It is one of Neil Kinnock’s remarkable achievements to have turned the traditional Labour Conference into the harmless and glossy rally that was Blackpool 1990.
For Jim Callaghan and those who had witnessed Morecambe and other Labour Conferences down the years, the week was full of ironies. Schooled by Peter Mandelson (Herbert Morrison’s grandson), Labour had become the party of striped shirts, dark suits and tidy haircuts. It had also become a party of women, dressed brightly by Next and Benetton, confident, informed and taking a week off from their professional lives as solicitors, lecturers and business people. In the chair was Jo Richardson who, thirty years ago, helped to organise the Bevanite ‘Conference Must Decide’ campaign to nail Hugh Gaitskell after his Scarborough speech. Now, in order to avoid the binding consequences of a card-vote defeat, she was calling for a show of hands on a defence motion critical of the leadership. Tony Benn, who lost the deputy leadership by a whisker a few years ago, wanted to speak about the Gulf, but wasn’t called. Instead, Conference listened respectfully to formal monologues by Front-Bench speakers, some of whom had watched from the floor when, in 1976, Denis Healey, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had fought to be given five minutes of Conference time to put his case. With red roses (pink next year?) being thrown to the delegates from the platform and ‘Jerusalem’ easing out ‘The Red Flag’ as the farewell anthem, it had been a good week for Labour. There had been few hostages to fortune. There had been goodwill, intelligence and restraint. It had been quite like an SDP Conference.
The depression which settled over Labour with John Major’s sudden announcement of entry to the ERM and a cut of 1 per cent in interest rates is a measure of the fragility of its confidence, however. Mrs Thatcher had shot its fox, improbable fox though it may be. Neil Kinnock was harshly reminded that every government has formidable cards to play in the run-up to a general election. On the eve of Blackpool, an NOP survey for the Independent and BBC 2’s Newsnight showed that, despite the downturn in the economy, inflation in double figures and rising unemployment, more voters trust the Conservative Party to deal effectively with the economy than did so in May. John Smith, Gordon Brown and the Treasury team are the most impressive part of the Shadow Cabinet, but they are faced with voters perverse enough both to reward the Government for success and to trust it with recovery from self-induced failure. How can Labour ever win?
The problem for the Labour Party is not its public face at Blackpool or continuing misgivings about the gravitas, maturity and – it must be said – intellectual weight of its leader as prime minister-in-waiting. Its problem is its history. However effective the live show on television, there are too many powerful memories. During Labour’s Conference week, a Tory Party political broadcast flashed onto the screen the images of yesteryear: strikes; the Militant Tendency; Labour MPs sponsored by overbearing trade unions; Neil Kinnock as a member of CND. ‘All over Europe every country is rejecting socialism,’ said the anonymous voice-over.
The Seventies were a disastrous decade for Labour. Harold Wilson’s somersault on the Common Market split the dominant Centre-Right of the Party. For the first time since the early days of Bevanism, the Soft Left saw its chance. While the Trade Unions settled for the Social Contract (pushing up inflation to 27 per cent), the Soft Left acquiesced in the steady advance of the Hard Left wreckers. Kinnock sat on his hands during the Winter of Discontent, unwilling to confront the Unions. Then, in opposition, the Soft Left joined with the Unions in demanding the constitutional changes in the Party which led to the launch of the SDP in 1981. Support fell to scarcely more than one in four voters in the General Election of 1983. In a real sense, Neil Kinnock has been picking up the pieces of the party he, among others, caused to fall apart.
It now remains to be seen whether Labour’s lead in the opinion polls will be sufficiently eroded in the next six months for Mrs Thatcher to make an earlier dash for cover than expected. Even the Poll Tax, which in March had been the most important issue for 50 per cent of voters, was the central consideration for only 27 per cent in September. Labour’s Blackpool commitment to remove it ‘within a year’ may yet prove to be an unsettling promise. But if Blackpool turns out to be Labour’s pre-election Conference, it must run on the energy it has created and in the direction it has chosen. Even if the election is postponed until 1992, the Party will offer itself for government much as it is now, united, well-meaning and bland. Where it still falls short in attracting middle opinion, it is too late for second thoughts.
With a firm push from Neil Kinnock, electoral reform might have been the centre-piece of radical constitutional proposals on the lines of Charter 88. The resolution in favour of an inquiry into electoral reform – carried by a narrow majority – was a sign of the remarkable progress Proportional Representation has made. But a genuflection of this kind, with its significance being discounted by the leadership, will not deceive those who prefer the unequivocal commitment of the Liberal Democrats.
As serious for a party which hopes to make inroads into middle opinion is the dominant role the Trade Unions still play at Conference, on the National Executive Committee and, ultimately, in choosing the next Labour leader through the electoral college. The Unions remain eager for a wider role after years of loyalty to Labour in opposition and unaccustomed exclusion from Number 10. Saddled with a commitment to a minimum wage, a Labour government, as the country’s largest public-sector employer, would be confronted by its friends and paymasters. As an alternative to the harsh corrective of high interest rates and rising unemployment, it would be tempted to seek an agreement with the Unions comparable to George Brown’s ‘Declaration of Intent’ or the Social Contract.
There is nothing wrong about a dialogue between the Unions and government or in the attempt to reach consensus on economic problems. But as long as an institutional link exists between them and the Labour Party, self-interest, sentiment and guilt will give them a permeating influence on Labour in power. Labour will remain the party of producers by hand and by brain, offering special access to the NUT on education policy, NUPE and COHSE on health, the NUR on transport, the NUM on energy, and to every other union in whatever area it exerts a legitimate interest. The danger to Labour as it seeks a mandate for government is not that it might repeal Mrs Thatcher’s trade union legislation (that idea has been rejected), but an embrace from the Unions as warm as it has ever been.
Neil Kinnock has transformed the face of the Labour Party in seven tough years of dedication. The question remains whether seven years have been long enough to erase memories of earlier times. It would be reassuring for him to believe that the climate of public opinion had changed and voters were ready to turn their backs on the Thatcher revolution. The realignment of the Centre-Left in Britain is a great task, and someone must achieve it. But there are still those highly critical of Mrs Thatcher who prefer to see a change of government postponed than a Kinnock administration collapse in tears and ashes. Blackpool 1990 was a triumph for the Labour Party, but the bets are on a narrow majority of seats for Mrs Thatcher with a larger vote for the Liberal Democrats than current polls foretell. Who knows, Neil Kinnock may still extend a friendly hand to Paddy Ashdown and, swallowing hard, ask him to name his price.