Why Labour's arithmetic is a lesson to us all

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The young woman with the red power jacket, took out her mobile phone and spoke into it, framed by the large window with its panoramic view of Westminster. Gordon Brown was due to speak any minute, so there was not much time to sell shares, or buy securities.

We were gathered together in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, to be taken on the latest stage of Labour's exciting journey into power. This leg was to be run by the shadow Chancellor and was headed, "Responsibility in Public Finance". Or why there's not going to be any money.

There was a strange crew around me. For a start, there were several smart young wo-men organising things for Labour, one of whom actually sported a cleavage. In the brief days of the Benn Supremacy, such a thing would have been unthinkable. The woman in question would have been hustled out with a pair of dungarees over her head.

Then there were members of the Labour Finance and Industry Group, a pleasant (if motley) bunch of the sort of industrialists who are against put-ting children down chimneys, and who are the equivalents - in puissance and numbers - of the Tory Campaign for Electoral Reform. They are the sort of folk who, when asked by the security guard at the metal detectors whether they have any coins in their pockets, blush and hand the man a tenner.

One of them was Greg Dyke, the millionaire who runs Channel 5, and who sports the giveaway New Labour uniform of a truncated beard (see also Alistair Darling, Treasury spokesman). Nicola Horlick was too busy to attend.

Then there was a liberal sprinkling of think-tanky folk, activist academics and left-of centre know-alls.

The most prominent was Roger Liddle, a former Social Democratic Party man, who pens a column each week in the New Statesman entitled "A Memo to" (followed by the name of a different Shadow Cabinet member).

Mr Liddle's pieces are reminiscent of those Reader's Digest articles entitled "I am John's prostate". In one of my favourite fantasies, the entire Shadow Cabinet pen a reply called "A Memo to Roger Liddle". It consists of two words.

Then Gordon came to the lectern and delivered his ground-breaking speech. It started with some of the usual codes, such as "we must transcend the old sterile battle" (we were wrong), and we must "move beyond the old battleground" (we were totally wrong).

"Now more than ever" (an inefficient Old Labour way of saying "now") there can be "no taxation without information, justification or explanation" (which beats just "representation").

Labour, when it came to power, would be rigorous, efficient, tough, strict, sensible, fair and prudent. (Prudence put in so many appearances that I began to wonder whether this was not the name of Mr Brown's mystery woman. Meet the firm - but fair - Prudence Rigour, the strict lady from Pitloch-tough. She, like her fiance, would grip things effectively, tackle things efficiently, and every item of household expenditure would have to be justified.)

But wait, I hear you cry, what's the point in Labour if it is not going to lash out with tons of money? Well, as Gordon said, "what matters now is not how much government spends, but how the money is spent"; a line I must remember for my impending negotiations about pocket money with a firmly Old Labour seven-year-old.

"Rosa, it doesn't matter how much I give you," I shall argue sternly. "What matters is how you spend it".

"But Daddy" she'll reply, "that's not the kind of maths they teach us at school."