THE BRITISH party conference season, that annual decampment of the party faithful to decaying hotels in rainy, autumnal seaside resorts, has ended amid uncertainty over the leadership of all three main parties.
A question mark still hangs over Charles Kennedy’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats. Many inside his own party view him as an ineffectual lightweight presiding over a policy vacuum. Simon Hughes, or even Lembit Opik, may one day decide to challenge a leader whose ‘decapitation’ strategy disappointed expectations at the last election.
Labour’s conference represented the beginning of Tony Blair’s long goodbye to the party and the so-called handover of power to his chancellor. There is something profoundly presumptuous and undemocratic about the repeated use of the word “handover” in this context. It is almost as though the press, as well as Gordon Brown and his acolytes, were speaking about the Queen abdicating in favour of Prince Charles. But, truth be told, no other serious contender for the leadership has emerged.
The following week, candidates for the Conservative leadership jostled for position in Blackpool, pitching their boats in varying shades of blue water. One can now assume that one of three contenders will gain the crown: either David Cameron, the young pretender, Kenneth Clarke, the charismatic big beast of the Tory jungle, or David Davis, the unostentatious but quietly effective shadow home secretary.
Cameron is a Old Etonian, a distinct handicap in the current climate of inverted snobbery in Britain. Clarke is too much of a Europhile and too old – by the time of the next election he will be almost 70. The last opposition leader of a similar age was Michael Foot in 1983 and he sank to ignominious defeat. So, at the time of writing, Davis still seems the favourite, although the odds have lengthened slightly after last week’s lacklustre conference address.
Members unrepresentative of average voter
Contemporary party conferences are costly, insular and highly unproductive affairs. They are designed to be bonding sessions for attendees but often backfire into internecine bickering as rival camps conspire. Real debate, apart from at fringe meetings, is conspicuously absent.
Workplace conferences are similar: earnest city workers arrive at a seaside hotel to debate performance enhancing measures. In practice, employees compete to see who can be the most sycophantic to the boss. They then retreat to the bar for a marathon drinking session that leads to a near fatal drunken accident in the bathroom of their room at 3am. The following morning, the pace is much slower as hungover delegates, frantically sucking extra strong mints, make surreptitious trips to the cloakroom while their leader (who is also hungover) lectures them on the need to be proactive.
Similarly, party conferences seldom debate issues of concern to the country. Increasingly stage managed set pieces in the manner of US conventions, conferences are designed to rouse party members. The activists concerned usually have strong views untypical of the party’s supporters in the country. Most Conservative activists are white, over 50, faintly ‘Blimpish’ rural dwellers or suburbanites, well to the right of the average Tory voter. Similarly, the bearded, woolly jumpered Labour ‘leftie’, who carries his well worn CND badge to meetings in draughty church halls, is usually more radical than Labour supporters in the country.
Past Labour conferences marked by squabbling
Conferences these days are seldom memorable and, if they are, it is usually for a witty one-liner or internal feud rather than any earth-shattering debate. This year’s Labour conference produced one iconic image, an 82-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany being removed from the hall by burly stewards for heckling Jack Straw. The Labour Party, determined to prevent the type of internecine squabbling that entertained us in the past, has made the suppression of dissent into an art form.
Labour conferences used to be very different. The blood of comrades lay scattered on the floor as members feuded over the miners’ strike or the desirability of having black sections within the party. Former Labour chancellor Denis Healey was booed off the platform in 1976 as he made a speech about the necessity of spending cuts. In 1979, former Prime Minister James Callaghan and his defeated cabinet colleagues were subjected to vitriolic attack from the left (critics included current Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt!) for their alleged betrayals while in office.
In 1981, fresh bickering erupted when Denis Healey and Tony Benn contested the deputy leadership. Neil Kinnock was even involved in a punch-up with an enraged Benn supporter who accused him of being a Judas when he decided to abstain in the vote. Party divisions reached their zenith in 1985 when Neil Kinnock launched a sustained attack against Militant, prompting Derek Hatton to barrack abuse (where were the stewards then?) and the late Eric Heffer to storm off the platform.
Tebbit’s “on your bike” speech was a defining
moment in Tory history
The Tory faithful, by contrast, were always more self-disciplined. One of the most amusing moments was in 1977 when 16-year-old William Hague bemoaned the direction of Britain under a Labour government. “It’s alright for you, most of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years time!” he told them. Margaret Thatcher’s famous “The lady’s not for turning” speech in 1980, in response to calls for a U-turn on economic policy, established her credentials as a tough conviction politician.
Norman Tebbit’s address to the 1981 conference, delivered after a summer of inner city rioting, made him a bogey figure for the left. Referring to his father’s experience of unemployment in the 1930s, Tebbit remarked: “He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work!” It was a defining moment for the Conservative Party, marking their tacit acceptance of unemployment and the reversal of the postwar consensus. Norman Tebbit also provided the enduring image of the 1984 Conservative conference in Brighton, albeit in more unfortunate circumstances. Fire crews had to rescue him from the rubble after the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel, killing five people and injuring 34 others.
These historical gems apart, the trend towards conferences becoming a mutual adulation society is disturbing. Increasingly, conferences have become mere cheerleading sessions for the leader. It’s just another symptom of the deterioration of Britain and the dumbing down of its culture.