Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Party’s politburo presents Iron Balls, deficit slasher and self-flagellator


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Indy Politics

Maybe it’s the vast hangar-like auditorium that is Manchester Central Hall Two. Or the weirdly isolated politburo-style desk on the stage where the Leading Party Figures sit. But something about the Labour conference these days irresistibly recalls a Chinese Communist Party People’s Congress.

In this spirit, a highlight of yesterday’s speech by Ed Balls was a passage of self-criticism fully worthy of a Mao-era “struggle session”. While the banks had caused the recession, “we should have regulated those banks in a tougher way”, Balls announced after pledging total allegiance to “our leader” (The Great Helmsman Miliband). “It was a mistake. We should apologise for it. And I do.” 

Balls then confessed to other deviations. “It was a mistake not to have transitional [immigration] controls in 2004... And conference, we should not have scrapped the 10p starting rate of income tax,” he added, before ending this self-flagellation by declaring (not one of the top 10 segues of all time): “We don’t just need to learn from our mistakes. We also need to put right the mistakes this government has made.”

Like the football game in which the face of the Northern Echo’s Rob Merrick had bloodily collided with the Balls elbow (“The least said about elbows the better,” admitted the Shadow Chancellor after failing to excise from his text a reference to “Boris… preparing to elbow David Cameron out of the way”), this was a speech of two halves.

There was some party-stroking on the minimum wage, jobs guarantee, taxing millionaires, and general Tory bashing. But mainly this was the deficit-cutting, child-benefit capping, “we will not make promises we cannot afford”, Iron Balls.

But the other Chinese CP similarity is the ever more flattening absence of savage dissent, so different from conferences long past.

True there were one or two stifled boos when Balls announced that a future Labour government “would continue to raise the retirement age”. But these could have been plants to underline how fiscally tough he was being.

Later the conference did Scotland – in which the highlight was a winning “come back” appeal to Yes voters by Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran, while Ed Miliband thanked everybody in the campaign, except, mysteriously, the very absent Gordon Brown.

And then we had Sham 69’s “If the kids are united”. Even more mysteriously, given their overwhelming Englishness. But then they were the first punk band to tour the People’s Republic of China.