The most effective known antidote to a Labour Party conference is one held by the Conservatives. You thought that malice, lack of charity and sheer craziness were all freely on display in Brighton last week? Just wait until you get to the Tories at Manchester. In fact, over the past decade or so, perhaps longer, the audiences at all the party conferences, the Liberal Democrats included, have become tamer, more restrained.
These annual gatherings have become gloomy and introspective affairs. It is not that they have declined exactly (though they have). It is more that they have reverted to a condition of being more private gatherings, as they had been in the immediate post-war period. Paradoxically, the rise and triumph of television have led to the decline of interest in party conferences.
The increased power of the party managers led them to tailor their requirements to what they thought were the needs of television. And so there were endless videos, like those old-fashioned propaganda films that were made in the war. It was difficult to know who was meant to be in the backing chorus on the platform. The principal speaker was encouraged to wander about at will.
One of the main movers in these changes was Peter Mandelson, initially in the period when he was not a minister and had not become an MP, but when he was a press adviser to the Labour Party. Lord Mandelson's performance last Monday owed little to the devices which he himself had been partly responsible for introducing. It was an old-fashioned speech at a party conference. His maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison, would have been proud of him. In fact Morrison was not much of a one for public speaking or, come to that, for party conferences. He was more gifted at organisation and intrigue. But he was for many years a person of consequence in the party.
Lord Mandelson made a very good speech. It may even have been a great speech. But such is the way of speeches at party conferences, or anywhere else for that matter, that what tends to be remembered is one memorable phrase or the innate drama of the occasion. Neil Kinnock is remembered for his attack on the Militants of Liverpool at the Bournemouth conference of 1985; David Steel for saying "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" at Llandudno in 1981.
Everyone now says it was at a Liberal conference. In fact it was at an evening rally when the leaders of the other party in the newly formed Alliance, the Social Democrats, had said their various pieces. I remember the occasion distinctly.
Lord Mandelson was reminiscent of Iain Macleod at the Conservative conference in 1963. That was when Harold Macmillan resigned at the beginning of the conference and no one knew what to do next. Macleod tried to raise the spirits of his defeatist and demoralised audience. "Lift up your hearts," he said, "we shall overcome." At the time everyone thought Harold Wilson would win by a landslide. But as things turned out, the Tories came to within four seats of Labour.
With a full toolbox of the old-fashioned music-hall comedians' equipment – winks, nods, grimaces, twitches, scratching behind the ear,
self-deprecating references to himself and insults to his opponents – Lord Mandelson devoted himself to the great task of trying to cheer his audience up. He exceeded all expectations in the role of warm-up man for Mr Gordon Brown on the next day.
Mr Brown did not quite disappoint. But he did not have them exactly rolling in the aisles either. His first conference speech as prime minister was a nasty, mean-spirited affair which celebrated the arrival of various new ministers, most of whom had had no connection with the Labour Party and have now taken themselves off. His second speech, in 2008, relegated Mr David Cameron to the ranks of novices, or economic apprentices.
The trouble was that Mr Brown had set up the machine at enormous expense. But he and Mr Alistair Darling had not been able to work it in quite the way that had been intended. In particular, the banks refused to do what they had been told to do and insisted on doing something else.
Even so, his pitch – the pilot who had weathered the storm – was the only possible approach for Mr Brown to take. Instead he cluttered up his speech with a whole lot of pre- election bribes and threats to unmarried mothers aged 16.
I was reminded of the row involving the Contagious Diseases Act in Victorian times. This was a proposal for the compulsory medical examination of prostitutes in garrison towns. The militant feminist movement of that period, aided by John Stuart Mill, combined to defeat the measure on libertarian grounds. It is a surprise that Mr Tony Blair did not think of reviving the scheme at the beginning of his period of office. Instead Mr Brown is proposing compulsory hostels for 16-year-olds and their babies.
Not even Mr Rupert Murdoch has suggested that, as far as I am aware. In 1994-97, Mr Blair and Mr Alastair Campbell had the great ambition of bringing the Daily Mail and Mr Murdoch's papers "on-side" as they put it. And, of these, the greatest of them was The Sun.
In the initial period of opposition, and then in government, endless trouble was devoted to securing and then retaining the favour of Mr Murdoch and the smaller stars in the galaxy. Mr Blair travelled to the far corners of the globe to accommodate Mr Murdoch's wishes or those of the gatherings he was organising. Nor was Mr Brown backward in jumping on the next aeroplane, even though Mr Brown's appetite for foreign travel was less than Mr Blair's. He and Mr Blair were in it together, as co-conspirators.
Alas – or, for some Labour supporters, happily – Mr Brown was not the favoured partner that had been Mr Blair. Indeed, it was the Iraq war that kept the romance going for as long as it did. By Wednesday morning, earlier for those in the know at Brighton, it was all over.
Lord Mandelson, who was a pioneer in the enterprise, and had kept on good terms with Mr Murdoch's various friends and relations on the seven seas or elsewhere, was particularly indignant. He called the people connected with The Sun "chumps", though the spelling may have been altered slightly after the initial "c". "Chumps" belongs to the old-fashioned boys' comic.
Whatever it was that Lord Mandelson said to his old friends at The Sun, he was clearly cross. Mr Brown seems to have been even crosser. What was humbug was the attempt in the Labour Party and the government to flatter and indulge Mr Murdoch and his papers – and at the same time to claim that they were being treated unfairly by the press. Mr Murdoch has chosen to bring the humbug to an end.Reuse content