Labour in Blackpool: Fringe casts off the mantle of hard-edged radicalism

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THINGS are not what they used to be in the Labour Party, and that is reflected nowhere more than in the standing and relevance of the fringe - at least in the eyes of the leadership and most of the media.

Labour fringe meetings are nowadays respectable and safe, sponsored by banks, the Audit Commission, the National Association of Pension Funds and other bodies from the economic and political mainstream.

Hard-edged radicalism seems much more the province of the Tory party fringe, once a virtual non-event and now the focus of new right- wing thinking.

John Monks, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, will address a Law Society meeting at the fringe of the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth next week, the first time a TUC leader has appeared at the Tory conference in an official speaking capacity.

Heavy media attention will likewise be paid to several 'star' fringe appearances by the likes of Michael Portillo and John Redwood, the right- wing secretaries of state for employment and Wales respectively.

Fringe grandees will include Lord Howe, the former Chancellor, Lord Parkinson, former Tory party chairman, and Enoch Powell, while Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, will give the Conservative Political Centre Lecture.

While the Tory fringe might appear more glittering, however, Labour's fringe provides an important and much-valued platform for those who have yet to find a voice and those whose voice is no longer in the ascendant, the party's left.

At the 10th gathering of the hard left, yesterday's Labour Left Liaison meeting, Sean Clegg, press officer for the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, said the fringe was 'very much' a necessary feature. 'Conference is so well stage-managed that it's the only opportunity, apart from Campaign Briefing, of getting our message across.'

The briefing is a resume of the behind-the-scenes machinations that sometimes lie behind platform positions on forthcoming votes. Amid renewed criticism of 'blabbing on about Clause IV' as an election loomed, yesterday's 100-strong meeting saw Pete Willsman, outgoing member of the Conference Arrangements Committee, explaining the intricacies of calling for a card vote and spelling out the moral of some conference experiences: 'Stay in your seats . . . This morning was exciting, a bit like the old days.'

And yet even Labour's fringe is not merely the province of the struggling left. At a Family Welfare Association meeting there was Harriet Harman, Shadow Chief Secretary, urging the case for changes in the welfare state. 'We pressed ahead with change in the welfare state when we were in government and we should not cease arguing so in opposition.'