The only debates worth having occur outside party conferences

In May 1997, millions of voters did not vote for the composition of the NEC of the Labour Party

IN HER moment of triumph yesterday, Liz Davies - newly elected to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party - permitted herself a few little digs. Victory for herself and her three fellow members of the Grass-roots Alliance had come, she said, despite the fact that "columnists on various papers heaped insults on myself and my fellow candidates. I am," she added, "proud that party members saw through the falsehoods and distortions and voted solidly for a socialist alternative."

She has forgotten, I think, in all the excitement, that her slate was not actually promising a socialist alternative, but was rather explicitly capitalising on discontent with the Party's undoubted centralising tendencies. But let that one go, for I rather think that I am one of the columnists that Ms Davies is referring to. Certainly my article last month about Labour Left Briefing, a publication-cum-grouplet upon whose editorial board she sits, attracted a series of angrily worded letters of rebuttal from a good half of that board (all of them undeclared, incidentally), and a letter threatening to issue proceedings for libel "without further notice" should I not retract and apologise unequivocally my observations, from most of the other half. As readers can see, I do not retract them; I stand by them. As yet, five weeks later, proceedings have not been issued.

Interestingly not one word that I wrote was specifically contradicted by those threatening action or complaining. Tim Pendry, as "co-ordinator of the Grass-roots Alliance", wrote that I was "sustaining a campaign of personal vilification" by having the temerity to point out that Briefing was, to say the least, ambivalent about its attitude to the morality of Irish Republican terrorism (indeed, yet another piece in October's edition of Briefing refers to the "armed struggle").

What was remarkable to me, however, about this reaction was its solipsistic assumption that I was somehow involved in their tedious little war, that I had been put up to it by the Blairites in order to get members of the Labour Party to vote for this slate rather than that. Whereas the truth was (and is) that I do not care who gets elected to the NEC of the Labour Party. I don't even know how many posts there are on it. In May 1997, millions of voters did not vote for the composition of the NEC of the Labour Party. It is Tony Blair's principle virtue that he isn't a party man, and isn't a narrow tribalist.

But activists often are. So when they talk about about the "need for debate", therefore, they are part right and part wrong. It is indeed imperative that the Government should find itself involved in challenging discussion and debate. If, however, the debate involves a shouting match with Liz Davies and her Briefing friends, it is the wrong debate. It won't get us anywhere.

Take the economy. According to Ken Livingstone yesterday, "People in the party want to increase tax, spend more on the welfare state and want interest rates to come down and don't want to get into bed with Paddy Ashdown." That was why they voted Grass-roots, apparently. Ken later advocated, "a bit more on taxes, a bit more spending". A "bit more"? So what did the Comprehensive Spending Review represent? A "bit more" that was not, unfortunately quite enough? Just how much is Ken's "bit more"? And how would he spend it? One minute the extra money would go on public sector pay, and the next it would "soak up unemployment" caused by the coming recession.

The contradiction there is pretty glaring, but no-one picks him up on it. Like one of his own pets, Ken moves with insinuating ease from soft toned criticism to regretful disagreement. It is a shimmering, iridescent display. Follow the trail back to the creature's lair, however, and you find it empty. Where is the plan? We should cut interest rates, no matter what the impact on inflation, increase taxes sufficiently both to create many new jobs in the public sector and to remunerate those in them much better. Meanwhile we shouldn't make welfare reforms, shouldn't have tuition fees and so on. Liz, naturally, agrees. She wants higher rates of income tax kicking in at "over twenty thousand or so", thus raising the revenue we need to fund health and education ("promises we made to the electorate"). Promises on taxation are presumably regarded by Liz as deserving all the fidelity of a Tudor marriage.

Such wish lists do not make an economic strategy. So what might Liz or Ken's view of an alternative be? Once again Briefing rides to the rescue. In October's edition a comrade from Cambridgeshire writes a long article on the alternative. It concludes: "An ideological shift is required which reflects seriously on the methodology most appropriate to economic enquiry and which instead of justifying the enslavement of humanity seeks to emancipate it from the tyranny of inequality and poverty. The urgent task still remains to develop a radical economics that responds to the concerns of those who do not share New Labour's belief in the beneficence of the market to meet the real needs of real people in the real world."

And that, comrades, is where it stops. There is not one single word about what the urgent "shift" is. Frankly, even in yer face Trotskyism, or a lengthy Helen Brinton disquisition on the Third Way, is preferable to this shifty vacuity. The real debate, of course, is about whether countries, acting together, can construct a set of rules within which the global marketplace operates. But you will hardly hear a word of this at the Labour conference.

Similarly, it is depressing to listen to the self-interested guff that passes for conference debates about matters such a electoral reform. After the PR pieties of the LibDem conference, comes the even worse nonsense in Blackpool. This is the newly elected Grass-roots NEC member, Pete Willsman writing on the Jenkins Commission, and approving the opposition of some big unions to reform: "The existing Conference policy is in favour of first-past-the-post and this position needs to be emphatically endorsed ... The unions believe that majority Labour governments (even Blairite ones) are better for their members than Tory or Lib Dem coalition governments. PR would consign majority Labour governments to the history books." This man is the leader, by the way, of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. So now we know what that's about - democracy for those in the Labour Party, and sod-all for those outside it.

This instrumentalism is not just the preserve of the left. Those on the right of the party, such as Gerald Kaufman, also argue against change in a way that reminds you how - without pluralism - parties come to resemble golf-clubs or Masonic orders. Essentially they become conspiracies against the rest of us. So what if, for nearly two decades, 42 per cent of voters gave us a government that 58 per cent didn't want? Now it's our turn. So what if, for years, Labour voters in large swathes of the South East had no representatives at all? Now the Tories elect no MPs in Scotland. Hoho, heehee.

So yes, of course, we can all agree that we need good political debate in this country. But too often the last place we'll find it is at party conferences. No, readers, we'll just have to do the show here, in the old barn.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on