Labour Conference: The Sketch - Old Labour is just sleeping

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THE LABOUR Party conference resembles a TV game show with its glittering stage set. Enthusiastic, young (ish) delegates are called to the rostrum to talk loyally and animatedly about the exciting developments in their constituency policy meetings, throw in the habitual Tory-bashing and make their implicit bids for the candidates list.

The chairman supposedly selects speakers at random but I marvel at how well-prepared and sanitised each speaker's text appears to be. One wonders what subtle efforts have been made, in advance, for those duly favoured to be called to have been briefed to sit in strategic parts of the hall. But it doesn't always work, and one bad egg slipped through.

The backdrop to the speaker's rostrum resembles a giant Rubik cube of different primary colours. When the bigwigs are called, the colours all become one. So when Gordon Brown stepped up it became a pink brick wall.

Mr Brown has been tiring of his trusty friend Prudence in recent months, especially after his pounds 40bn spending spree in the summer, but he is obviously feeling a gap in his life since he dumped her. Yesterday there were only two references to her and he was back to his love affair with alternative vacuous phrases.

His speech had all the ferocity of a grim Methodist preacher. He went "goal" scoring and everything was "a challenge". He scored six "goals", but they were beaten by 12 "challenges". Goals were to be "achieved the New Labour way". They were "the 1944 goals"; they had been "abandoned" and he would "pursue" them. When it came to "challenges", there was no stopping him. There were four "challenges of change"; he would be "equal to every challenge" and would "face up to the challenge" as well as "challenge old patterns" before finally promising to "rise to the challenge".

Tony Blair sat on the platform and was always the first to punctuate favourite buzzwords in the speech with enthusiastic applause, which was the cue for delegates to follow suit, often with little enthusiasm. It would be better if Mr Blair held up a large card with the words "clap now", because not all of them have accepted "the challenge of change".

Mr Brown perorated and the conference, led by Tony Blair, dutifully stood and ovated. As Mr Brown resumed his seat the Prime Minister virtually blew kisses to him, standing over him whispering sweet nothings into his ear.John Prescott felt left out, and as Mr Blair was about to leave Mr Prescott summoned him over. "Oi, what about me?" he seemed to be saying.

It was then the turn of Peter Mandelson to step out of the shadows, lose the tag of chief spin doctor and make his conference debut as a Cabinet minister. But if he expected to be the hero of the hour he was probably sorely disappointed.

His adenoidal tones lectured about technology and he declared himself a revolutionary. "Don't worry, not a Marxist revolutionary, but a modern industrial revolutionary."

There were eight revolutions in the speech, but they were not enough for Derek Hodgson, of the Communication Workers' Union, who attacked "faceless, spineless Whitehall backroom boys" over Post Office privatisation.

The real revolution was on the conference floor, which erupted with a spontaneous standing ovation for Mr Hodgson. Mr Mandelson looked as though he had just sucked a very sour lemon. Old Labour is not dead, it is merely sleeping.