Labour Conference: The Sketch - How to impose law and order on the party faithful

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The Independent Online
"AT END of Jack's speech shout more, more."

So spake the pager message to Labour MPs as Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, enforced discipline, law and order on Labour delegates yesterday.

Ministers could make a start with delegates who arrive late each morning and are becoming progressively more tardy about attending in the conference hall. Bunking off is no longer an option. "New computerised registration facilities to help follow-up on non-attendance by contact with the home, followed by visits and action" will be implemented rigorously, Mr Blunkett said.

No one is to be spared from the Blunkett and Straw whiplash.

Journalists who disrupt the New Labour "Project" will be tagged. Everyone is to be locked up, shut up and put under curfew. All that was missing was a promise to bring back the cane, flogging and hanging. The rhetoric would have been equally appropriate for next week's Tory conference. These speeches would be better received by the Tory blue-rinse brigade than anything David Willetts or Norman Fowler will be able to offer. Mr Blunkett wowed his audience with the titles of two books Mr Willetts has written. The first, Why Vote Conservative?, was answered by the voters last year. The second, Is Conservatism Dead?, will be answered next week.

Lucy, Mr Blunkett's faithful dog, lay dutifully by the lectern lapping up his jokes but she got concerned when he hinted at evening curfews and hoped this would not mean an end to walks after 8pm. She was reassured, however, when he promised to get rid of all outside toilets - from schools.

When it came to Mr Straw, there was simply no stopping him. Tory Home Secretaries such as Willie Whitelaw were regarded as "wishy-washy" because of their liberal sensitivities and would have blushed at Mr Straw's audacity.

He began by saying that he has already lasted longer in the job than 23 of his predecessors. One lasted only five days but it will be another six and a half years before Mr Straw matches the eight-year record of the 1st Viscount of Sidmouth as the longest-serving Home Secretary. During Lord Sidmouth's Tory reign 14 Luddites were hanged in one day at York. Habeas Corpus was suspended and Lord Sidmouth was determined to strike at what he believed to be the root of the disorder of the time by rigorously enforcing the laws restraining the liberty of the press.

"Well, maybe he wasn't that bad after all," Mr Straw said.

He went on to describe, with admiration, the Viscount's greatest achievement, in 1816, when he established the first national prison at "guess where? - Millbank". According to records, Millbank was a grim and unforgiving place "where party workers - I mean prisoners - were severely punished for a breach of regulations, so no change there".

On yesterday's showing Lord Sidmouth's record will pale into insignificance by the time Mr Straw has reintroduced torture, the thumb-screws and the rack for just scrumping an apple.

He unveiled a plethora of new crimes and punishments. "We are abolishing from today the ludicrous idea that a 13-year-old is incapable of knowing whether robbing an old lady is right or seriously wrong." By next year's conference he will probably announce that "we are abolishing all 13-year- olds in case they may rob an old lady".

The conference was bullied and thumped as Mr Straw warmed to his theme. Anti-social behaviour orders came thick and fast followed by sex offender orders, parenting orders and "new local child curfews to protect the under- 10s" and "final warnings".

The civilised society that was the permissive society of Roy Jenkins's day has been replaced by the authoritarian society of Mr Straw.

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