Alan Watkins: The party's over before it has begun

Labour may be in conference mood, but there will be little merriment, even if Mr Brown performs a popular turn
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The Independent Online

The conscientious columnist, on the Sunday between two party conferences, is always divided by the need to cover the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. The accepted wisdom, first imparted to me by a former editor of mine, the monstrous Sir John Junor, was always to look forward, never back. In this year, the last before all the parties meet in a general election, I want to say a few words about both parties – and maybe about the Conservatives as well.

In more usual times, we should not have had to worry ourselves too much about Mr Nick Clegg and his party. It did not have what is called a good conference, in much the same way as Tories of a now extinct generation used to boast of having had a good war. Certainly Mr Clegg did not enjoy a good conference.

Indeed, at the end of the leader's uninspired, uninspiring and perfectly competent speech on Wednesday afternoon – a performance owing much to the David Cameron school of platform oratory, with a few acknowledgments to the master of both of them, Mr Tony Blair – the commentators chewed their biros and concluded: In a difficult week he was doing his best.

It is difficult to say precisely why the Liberal Democrat conference proved such a dispiriting event. Time was, I quite looked forward to what was then called the Liberal Assembly. A collection of eccentrics and even grotesques was put on annual display. The newspaper shorthand for these gatherings was "beards and sandals". This always seemed to me to be doing an injustice to the description of this event. There was once an individual who made a habit of appearing on the conference floor attired in a cardboard box. There were others who formed part of a regular cast of characters.

The change came with the demise of the Liberal Party and the formation of a new party under Paddy Ashdown in 1988. The new party acquired most of the characteristics of the old Social Democrats, because they brought with them some of the qualities, and many of the prejudices, of the old Labour right.

Some of the characteristics, it is fair to say, were taken with them from the old Liberals, and were tediously apparent last week: notably, how many amendments could dance on a resolution before the participants collapsed with exhaustion. But the old sense of mischief – if you like, of irresponsibility – had gone.

It was odd, in a way, that the former leader who was more celebrated last week was not Mr Charles Kennedy, still less Sir Menzies Campbell, but Lord Ashdown. Or perhaps it was not so odd. After all, Lord Ashdown served for 11 years. He depicted himself (and was seen by others) as a "strong" leader. And yet, it was Mr Kennedy who won the largest number of seats, 63 after the last election. It was Sir Menzies who was the public face of the opposition to the Iraq war.

Mr Clegg won the longest round of applause with his – wholly legitimate – boasting about his party's contribution to the opposition to the war, though it is fair to say that his share was proportionately less than theirs was. He, or his party, preferred to concentrate attention on Afghanistan.

Last week Lord Ashdown more

or less said that the country should finish the job. At any rate, he said, if I understood him correctly, that the concentration of troops should be increased for now. Lord Ashdown might have occupied the position of UK plenipotentiary in that unhappy country if the recently re-elected, if he was re-elected, leader had not objected to him. But there it is. Lord Ashdown is no longer in a position to make policy to his party about Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Someone else who seems to have been exceeding his instructions is Dr Vince Cable. I mentioned the old Liberal habit of dancing on resolutions. Here the grumble was from the party's MPs. Dr Cable appears to have made things up as he went along. His quickly discarded "mansion house" tax may have been lying around in various party publications. But it was never properly considered by anybody.

A colleague wrote after the fiasco that taxation of property had never been accepted by the Liberals. On the contrary: the taxation of land values was one of the longest running sideshows in Liberal politics at the beginning of the last century.

Dr Cable should forget about Russian oligarchs and football managers. What about the elderly widow in reduced circumstances, whose late husband bought the house many years ago and who now owns the same property just above the million pound limit? An old person, or anybody else for that matter, might struggle to find the down payment on a capital levy. Many of Dr Cable's auditors would be tempted to vote Conservative.

Guessing the way the Liberal vote will jump is the oldest game in politics, at any rate since 1945. Mr Clegg tried to make a pitch for the disillusioned Labour voter. One of the burdens he has to carry is that he has not built up any stock of wins in by-elections. On this note, we can turn to Mr Gordon Brown.

This week we may see the re-enactment of that much loved tableau Phoenix-from-the-Ashes. Edward Heath's position was always being called into question, until he became prime minister, and, most of all, in his last phase, after he had stopped being prime minister. Harold Wilson used to be a famous performer at that annual festival, in those days more interesting than it is now.

In those days too, there were too set-piece speeches on successive days, one on the Tuesday and the other on the Wednesday. The occasion has become more streamlined in this and other respects. The block vote no longer commands the deference it once did.

Even so, the trade unions are once again the guarantors of the leader's position. There is no agitation that I can discern for a change of leader, which necessarily means a change of prime minister. (Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 after succeeding Neville Chamberlain, who, however, remained leader of his party till later in the year.) I cannot see the electorate putting up with yet another imposed prime minister. There would be no revolution, or not quite: the voters would simply refuse to vote for whoever it was that the Labour Party chose to succeed Mr Brown. And quite right too.

The latest confusion is about wether the ballot paper for the general election could include the question of whether there should be a referendum on electoral reform. The trouble is that, so unpopular is Mr Brown, any question involving him is lost straightaway. The Government should have done something along these separate lines long ago.

It is too late now, a motto that might serve for the whole of this week's party conference.