The essence of acquiescence

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Anyone doubting how much the Labour Party has really changed should have been in the Brighton conference centre yesterday afternoon. All week, decisions by the new model leadership that would have provoked rioting in the aisles five years ago have been applauded cheerfully by delegates.

Deals with privatised mega-corps boasting bald former cabinet ministers on their boards? Fine by them. Preserve grant-maintained schools of the sort that the leader's son attends? Good idea. Keep Trident? Yo, Tony. And yesterday, Jack Straw, the man who dared to rant in the most incorrect of political ways about "winos, beggars and squeegee merchants" was allowed to make a 20-minute speech on getting tough on crime without once being interrupted by a lengthy point of order from the Amalgamated Union of Windscreen Cleansing Operatives. This spirit of acquiescence may, of course, have been the result of delegates being exhausted by the pace of it all. Straw's speech came at the end of a marathon charge through the agenda, in which 10 subjects and 80 resolutions were discussed in just over two hours. Orders and composites piled up on each other with barely time to breathe in between.

Moreover, the conference schedule seems to have been constructed by the computer which wrote Railtrack's new timetable. Just as you were expecting to climb aboard a debate on crime, along came one on local government. "This is a heck of an afternoon," said chairperson Clare Short at one stage. "Now let's move on to Northern Ireland." It was instructive throughout this gallop to watch the big guns on the platform. When, for instance, a woman wearing a green lapel ribbon took to the rostrum and started talking a bit like Gerry Adams's press officer, they were faced with a dilemma. Snort in derision and the cameras banked in front of them would snap up the evidence of a divided party. Look as though they were listening politely and there would be a clear sign that the leadership endorsed the loonies.

So Jack Straw, for instance, appeared totally neutral whenever he disagreed with a speaker: poring over his papers, or having a quiet word in Clare Short's ear about procedure. Tony Blair is the master of this method of giving nothing away on the platform. While his deputy John Prescott wraps his huge fists around his chin as he sits and listens, the back of his jacket rising up round his jowls, Blair spends his entire time aware of the photo opportunity; aware, perhaps of what was made of that picture of John Major with his head in his hands at a dinner.

Thus, as others speak, Blair sits so erect it appears he has left the coat-hanger in the back of his jacket, hand movements rationed to the point of extinction. Except when someone says something he agrees with, and then they move into action as he claps ostentatiously. He was doing that more than ever at the end of Straw's stirring call for "swift and tough action to be taken against criminal and anti-social vagrants." In truth, Blair's appreciation of his own personal rottweiler was significantly more enthusiastic than the delegates, who prefer their speakers to stick to one main resolution - "tough on Tories, tough on the causes of Tories".

Meanwhile the Amalgamated Union of Windscreen Cleansing Operatives had, like Arthur Scargill earlier in the week, voted with their feet. And were hard at work by the traffic lights at the top of West Street.