Nifty jackets and new hairdos - and that's just the men

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The Independent Online
By Chance I found myself last week having to look into what had happened at the Blackpool conference of 1980. That was the one which approved the principle of an electoral college to elect the leader. But what is memorable is not so much what it did as the atmosphere. It was horrible. All the conventions of civilised debate - such as allowing opponents to speak - were suspended. There were men shouting in teeshirts, women screaming in boiler suits and fists raised in triumphalist salute. The hero of the hour was Mr Tony Benn.

How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Labour Party under Mr Tony Blair! Today people are not shouted down. They are simply not allowed to speak. In place of teeshirts there are collars, ties and even suits, though not boiler suits: for these have been replaced by nifty jackets, short dark skirts and glimmering legs. The process began shortly after Mr Peter Mandelson arrived as Mr Neil Kinnock's adviser. The men started to dress more conventionally, while the women broke out in bows, enormous bows, worn at the collar. From boiler suits to bows: that was the early history of the change in the Labour Party.

The change has continued. But in one respect there has been a retrogression. Mr Kinnock said he did not want a Labour conference to be like a Conservative one where "security" was concerned. It was certainly easier to walk about in Blackpool than it will be in Bournemouth. But getting into the hall was almost as hellish as it undoubtedly will be with the Conservatives.

The reason I was given was not that Labour had become more conscious of security - not even that Mr Blair wanted to behave as the Conservatives did in this field as well - but that Mr John Edmonds of the municipal workers had for some reason contrived that security should be transferred from Securicor to Group 4. I should have thought this was a bit like transferring one's affections from the Princess of Wales to the Duchess of York. The only people to escape endless searches were the few (not including all Shadow Cabinet members) who had two gold flashes displayed on their passes.

Such dissent as is permitted is even less vigorous than it used to be. The visual aids have become more visual. The delegates did not even have the rebellious good humour to laugh, as the Liberal Democrats at least did when similar pieces of nonsense were thrust before their eyes at Brighton. Unbelievably, the process has gone so far that Mr John Prescott, of all people, has been trained to synchronise his speech with a daft film shown above his head, as he did on Wednesday afternoon.

And yet in other respects the conference remains the same. Debates are introduced by endless composite resolutions, each of which has to be moved and seconded. It is this lengthy procedure rather than any wish by the platform to suppress dissent (though they certainly want to do that too) which accounts for the paucity of contributions from the floor.

The leader still speaks on Tuesday. Harold Wilson used to make two contributions, one on Tuesday, the other on Wednesday. One of them was ostensibly an account of the parliamentary party's activities during the previous session. In reality it was an opportunity for Wilson to make another speech. I am not suggesting that Mr Blair should follow him. But it would give some excitement to the proceedings if the leader delivered his speech on the Friday morning (where Dr Brian Mawhinney has shifted Mr John Major this week) or the Thursday afternoon rather than on its second day.

Mr Blair's speech this time round was certainly a fine performance, even if it contained a little too much uplift for my tastes. Like many Christians, including Mr Benn (who once claimed that it was the moneychangers who drove Christ out of the Temple rather than the other way around), Mr Blair is vague about the Scriptures. The Old Testament prophets, far from being the benevolent visionaries depicted by Mr Blair, were curmudgeonly characters who believed that the Lord of Hosts was a vengeful God and were in favour of smiting their enemies with the utmost force. I doubt whether they would have been welcome in New Labour.

If Mr Blair eschews conflict, he is certainly in favour of effort. His New Britain looks like being a strenuous place, somewhere between an old- fashioned public school of the kind he himself attended and a Moral Rearmament conference in perpetual session. I do not know how much Mr Blair understands the problems of teaching. But if he thinks he can remove children who are backward readers compulsorily from their homes to instal them in summer schools without resorting to methods of compulsion which even Mr Michael Howard (or, come to that, Mr Jack Straw) would find excessive, he has no notion of modern Britain. In some ways he is a silly man.

At the beginning of the week the Guardian's charges of corruption against Mr Ian Greer and Mr Neil Hamilton looked as if they were precisely what New Labour wanted. Why, incidentally, import the United States word "sleaze" when there is the more powerful English word which expresses precisely what is meant? True, Mr Hamilton's activities took some of the publicity away from the conference. This was a deprivation that could be borne.

Here I should, as the MPs do (or, rather, fail to do), declare an interest. In the 1970s I, with another political journalist, was entertained to lunch by Mr Greer. Our fellow guests were directors of Fisons fertilisers. Fertilisers had never played any part in my life; nor have they since. In my small garden I trust in the rain, the sun and the soil. Mr Greer presumably wished to demonstrate to the directors that he could summon a couple of political journalists at will. We have not spoken since, and I have not written a word about fertilisers.

Mr Chris Smith accepted more than a free lunch from Mr Greer. He accepted pounds 200 for his campaign in the last election and the assistance of a person dispatched by Mr Greer. Mr Smith is my MP. I like him and think he is one of the few people qualified by ability to be in a Labour cabinet. But if I had been in his position I should have sent straight back both Mr Greer's cheque and his young assistant. Mr Blair has chosen to ignore the donations to Mr Smith's constituency and also to Mr Doug Hoyle's. He says that such gifts are quite different from those made to Mr Hamilton and others. I am not so sure that they are.

Mr Blair and Lord Richard, however, forced the resignation of Lady Turner from her frontbench post in the Lords simply because she had defended Mr Greer on Channel 4 News. At the same time they had chosen to ignore - indeed, given tacit approval to - her directorship of Mr Greer's company, about which they had known for many years. This seems to me great humbug. "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her": John viii. 7. An old Turkish proverb makes a similar point: "People who live in glass houses should not undress with the light on."