Twenty years of boos, jeers and heated debates

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Indy Politics

Amid the pandemonium, Eric Heffer, a Liverpool MP and member of Labour's ruling national executive committee (NEC), stormed off the platform in protest at Mr Kinnock's attack. In one of the defining moments of Labour's long road back from the political wilderness, Mr Kinnock, once a hero of the left, condemned the Militant leaders for "scuttling round a city in taxis handing out redundancy notices to their own workers".

However dramatic, the scenes were not unknown for a party conference which had routinely treated senior cabinet ministers with contempt.

When Denis Healey, the beleaguered Chancellor, tried to justify the spending cuts demanded by the International Monetary Fund in 1976, he was booed and jeered. Significantly, he was not even allowed to address the febrile Labour conference from the platform because he was not a member of the NEC. He had to speak from the microphones used by constituency party and trade union delegates on the floor of the hall.

Defence was another source of dramatic public disputes. Nye Bevan, another left-wing hero, clashed with his party when he said he would not give up the bomb and "go naked into the conference chamber".

Internal reforms were another cause of blood on the conference carpet. Hugh Gaitskell, the party leader, failed in an earlier attempt to do what Tony Blair did - scrap Clause IV, the party's commitment to public ownership. Amid riotous scenes, Mr Gaitskell dramatically promised to "fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love".

Yesterday's events showed just how far Labour have travelled in the past 20 years. Mr Kinnock started the journey by repudiating Militant's leaders and, at the same 1985 conference, disowning the striking miners, led by Arthur Scargill, for walking out without holding a ballot.

John Smith, the next Labour leader, took steps to reduce the influence of the trade unions, who have half the total voting strength at the conference. Recently, Mr Blair has neutered the conference. For many years he pulled out all the stops to avoid embarrassing defeats. Now, the conference is regarded as so irrelevant that he ignores its decisions.

Yesterday's over-reaction by conference stewards was symbolic of the intolerant approach adopted under Mr Blair, who himself faced hecklers over Iraq last year. But the desire to keep images of disunity off the television screens backfired spectacularly, when the heavy-handed actions of stewards featured prominently on news bulletins.

There is another downside to the "command and control" approach ingrained in New Labour. The party has little influence over government policy and was never consulted over controversial policies such as university top-up fees and foundation hospitals.

So it is no wonder that Labour membership has halved from 400,000 to 200,000 in the past five years. Some senior Labour figures now wonder what kind of party Mr Blair will leave behind when he stands down.