It's not much of a conference without a good row

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SOME PEOPLE are talking as if the old Labour conference gave forth its last flickering flames some time in the early Eighties. This is not quite true. In 1985, after all, Mr Neil Kinnock denounced Militant at Bournemouth and was afterwards taken seriously, much as Hugh Gaitskell attained a similar stature after his assault on the unilateralists at Scarborough in 1960, the principle in both cases being that no Labour leader used to be considered up to the job till he had had a colossal row with his own party.

The late John Smith nearly had one at Brighton in 1993 over the one member, one vote reforms for the selection of party leader and of parliamentary candidates. He threatened to resign if the changes were not approved by the conference (or "conference", the omission of the definite article being de rigueur in the best Labour circles). He was saved by a speech by Mr John Prescott, whose heart was not in it but who thought he ought to support the leader, even though the deputy leader was then Mrs Margaret Beckett. She opposed the reforms. Mr Prescott defeated her in the election which followed Smith's death and produced Mr Tony Blair. He is taken seriously without ever having had the need for a row. The jettisoning of Clause IV, which caused Gaitskell so much trouble and over which he was finally defeated, went through virtually on the nod, because the party wanted to win the election and the fundamentalists were too dim to realise what was going on until it was too late to do anything about it.

In a sentimental way I miss the great rows of the past and the sonorous phrases which accompanied them, as hallowed as those in the Prayer Book. "Comrade chairman, I move the reference back." "On a point of order." And, most menacing of all: "Card vote!" In fact the old, corrupt card vote persists, even if in attenuated form, with the unions wielding a lower proportion of the total vote. It was not called into play last week, though hints of the old phrases could still be discerned, like an 18th- century inscription on a lichen-covered gravestone.

But the most important change at the conference has less to do with these or other presentational matters than with the position of ministers. In olden times, the conference was ruled by the National Executive Committee. Only members of that body could address the assembly from the platform, as distinct from the humbler rostrum. During those periods when Labour was in office, the prime minister, as leader, was always a member of the NEC. Harold Wilson used to make two speeches to the conference, one on Tuesday, the other on Wednesday, in one of them presenting the "parliamentary report" as Leader of the Parliamentary Party.

Leaders from Ramsay MacDonald to Wilson, by the way, bore the title Chairman and Leader of the Parliamentary Party. In 1970 Wilson assumed the sole title Leader of the Parliamentary Party. In 1978 James Callaghan became simply Leader of the Labour Party. So it remains. But Mr Blair maintains the tradition of making his one speech at the beginning of the conference, on the second day. This gets it over and allows him to relax for the rest of the week. But it does mean that the remaining proceedings are something of a lengthy anti-climax unless there is an old-fashioned row later on.

By tradition the row occurs on a Thursday, which used to be hangover day, the condition having been brought about not so much by over-indulgence on the Wednesday evening as by the cumulative excess of the previous three or four days. Labour conferences are more sober occasions than they used to be, whatever you may read in the papers about the proliferation of champagne receptions. They are so partly because of the spirit of the age, partly because of the presence these days of many more women, who act as a moderating influence.

Even so, there could have been an old-fashioned row last Thursday on electoral reform. It did not happen, largely because the engineers, who were opposed to change, were prevailed upon not to press matters to a vote.

The prime minister of the day - Wilson or, later, Callaghan - made himself heard without difficulty, though often with disapproval. But his colleagues in the Cabinet could by no means all be guaranteed a place on the platform or even a call to the rostrum. This presented no problem to ministers who were fixtures on the NEC, such as Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle. Others, who were not members of the committee, were not so conveniently placed.

It seems inconceivable today that at some conference in the mid-Sixties Anthony Crosland was not called in a debate on education, even though he was Education Secretary at the time. I remember him complaining to me about it. At Brighton in 1969 special arrangements had to be made for Roy Jenkins, the Chancellor, to address the gathering from the platform. And when his successor, Denis Healey, turned round from his foreign expedition and sped to Blackpool in 1976, it was from the ordinary delegates' rostrum that he made his speech, and it was as such that he introduced himself to the comrades: "Healey, Member of Parliament for Leeds East" (though he had been a member of the NEC 1970-75).

This was a ridiculous way of carrying on. If the party is in the happy position of having some Labour ministers at last, it should at least hear what they have to say. And hear them it does, one after the other. It is in this respect, rather than in greater obedience, or in the omnipresence of commercial companies of various sorts, that the Labour conference is coming to resemble the Conservative, or the occasion as it used to be when the Conservatives were last in office.

Without going all the way with Mr Ken Livingstone and Mr Mark Seddon, who believe that Blackpool marked the end of Blairism, I think the degree of obedience can be exaggerated. And as Labour is in government and we live in a commercial age, one would naturally expect companies to insinuate themselves into the conference, as flies hover around a plate of cat food. What is new is that ministers are using the conference to publicise a series of "initiatives".

The trouble with this approach is that it is concerned less with what departments are or have any intention of accomplishing than with what will secure the front-page lead in next day's papers. Sometimes, indeed, several initiatives, designed to appeal to different papers, are announced in the same speech. Or different ministers may place different emphases on the same initiative. Thus Mr Blair, intending to appeal to the Daily Mail, excoriates "bad" teachers and promises to inflict condign punishment on them; while Mr David Blunkett, his eye more on the readers of the Guardian, praises the dedication displayed by the members of this noble profession.

So one could go on. But on the gravest matter facing the Government - the possible financial crisis - initiatives from ministers are distinctly scarce. There are merely confessions of helplessness from Mr Blair and Mr Gordon Brown, trapped in the global economy, and exhortations to the rest of us to stand firm and not to back down. What this means, I am afraid, is that we are expected to take whatever is coming to us uncomplainingly but still to vote them back into office.