The resemblance between Princess Anne and Margaret Beckett is striking. This similarity goes beyond looks. Like the Princess Royal, Mrs Beckett grows ever more wary of the media. Her low voice embarked on an apology for her late arrival to the fringe meeting at Brighton, waiting to hear her on 'Campaigning to win on the economy'. The fault lay, of course, with the press, who had been interviewing her on her loyalty to John Smith and her own job security. 'You can get it right in the national press or TV, but you can't win there,' said Mrs Beckett, moving on to the subject of the elections won at the doorstep and patting the grassroots workers on their heads for all their hard work. The press were failing to report Labour's policies, but they could get the message across instead.
'Redouble your efforts to make contact with your local communities,' she advised. Mrs Beckett spoke rapidly, without notes, slim fingers playing with her expensive-looking gold watch, until she finished with one last exhortation: 'You are our secret weapon, go out and win for us]'
As they clapped, she cast her dark eyes down and smiled. The next fringe meeting, on local party fundraising, awaited. Mrs Beckett rose to go, and her retinue of media men rose with her. 'Charge them to get out]' cried a wit. She stalked down the corridor of the Grand Hotel in her strappy high heels. A portrait of Edward VII looked down with a jovial twinkle.
Managing local fundraising, as well as campaigning, is one of Mrs Beckett's jobs. At the door of the meeting a 'consultation document', with an introduction by her, gave ideas on how to raise money. It had a cosy, genteel tone. The first idea was jumble sales, with a 20p entrance fee. 'Beware the jumble sale thief]' it advised. The third idea out of four outlined was 'A dinner at a posh French restaurant . . . costing pounds 50 each . . . Obviously not every member can afford dinner at pounds 50 a go, and those who could by saving would not be able to do it every week . . . .'
Mrs Beckett rose to speak again, once more encouraging her workers at the grassroots. Those collecting funds, she advised, should remember 'you have to be an emissary from the Labour Party'. At the back, the feelings of a thirtysomething woman from Birmingham exploded into speech. 'She's a disaster, isn't she, this woman?' she said to her nearest neighbour.
Mrs Beckett went on in her didactic way. '. . . the biggest problem the Labour Party has is that far too many people in this country see - utterly unjustifiably - the Conservative Party as people like them . . . .' At this, Ms Thirtysomething could stand no more and exited, shaking her head. What with the departure of those on the left, who feel she has betrayed them by dropping her old Bennite principles, and those on the right, who feel that she has been insufficiently loyal to John Smith, Mrs Beckett's fan club has shrunk.
'She's Princess Anne without the humanity,' one delegate told me. 'My wife admires women with more punch, like Clare Short.'
'She's not doing anything for women. She should be out there raising the banner,' said Carol Morrey, a Norwich councillor and visitor to the Labour Party conference, as she sat outside the overheated, airless hall.
'I'd like to see her playing a more positive role,' said Sheila Carroll, a union delegate. 'At the moment Margaret is being left in the shadows . . . I don't think it's fair to put the burden of inspiration on to Margaret.' So which women in the Labour Party carry that burden? 'For admiration and inspiration, you're looking at Jo Richardson, Clare Short, Pauline Green.'
Certainly the MPs for Barking, Birmingham Ladywood and the MEP for London North have more straightforward, less gratingly ladylike styles. Pauline Green had just started her first conference speech with a gritty rebuke: she had had to get elected and become leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party before she was allowed near the microphone. It may be that Mrs Beckett, for all her undoubted cleverness, looks and sounds a little too much like the Tory ladies she wants won over on the doorstep to appeal to prospective Labour-voting women.
On the party conference's final night, Labour Briefing, a newspaper of the 'independent, unrepentant left', held a fringe meeting in Brighton's Richmond pub called 'What kind of paper does the left need?' This was in some ways a mournful affair: Tribune was in trouble, the New Statesmen was about to be bought by an ex-Tory MP. The editor of Red Pepper, Denise Searle, revealed that her parents, life- long Labour voters, had become so fed up with the Daily Mirror they were buying the Daily Mail.
But for all this private grief the meeting held a spontaneity and humour sadly lacking these days at the main conference. Here, at least, people were saying what they really thought, uncompromised by ambition. 'Vote early and vote often]' cried its chair, Sue Lukes, inviting nominations for Class Traitor of the Month. A woman spoke, regretting the collapse of the feminist press, Spare Rib. As she talked, Ms Lukes suddenly disappeared from view, the plastic legs of her chair having given way in sympathy.
The politically-incorrect gathering laughed heartily. It was the third plastic chair to wilt in solidarity that night. Mike Marqusee, political correspondent of Briefing, said his biggest regret of the week was that there had not been enough barracking from the floor when the Shadow Cabinet was speaking. 'You've really got to hate the Establishment, including the Labour establishment,' he said cheerily, waving a booklet in the air. 'We have here the complete Class Traitors of the Month]'
And from page seven shone out the royal smile of Mrs Beckett.
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