Greasy Pole: Contrickery in Conference
Locked, bolted and barred with every spoken syllable and gesture weighed and scrutinised, the annual conferences of the big political parties are not what they used to be. There was a time when the attending members, taking pride in themselves as delegates, could have hoped that their agenda items, after being amended, composited and generally sanitised, might have borne some relation to the professed policy of their party, or when events scheduled as debates might have aroused some passion or indignation about world famine or dictatorships or devastating war. It is not like that now: “Borderline tedium” was how one observer put it.
This year Conservative Party members might have travelled home from their conference in a glow of satisfaction, under the impression that their doubts about the government had been noticed. As when Cameron defiantly laid it down that no one should feel bad about having been to Eton: “I say yes I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education. I’m not here to defend privilege. I’m here to spread it”. Except that privilege is nothing if not exclusive – as comprehensive pupils will realise if they ever have to play in their school’s version of the Eton Wall Game. As when the new Justice Minister, Christopher Grayling, thumped his tub to announce the replacement of Ken Clarke’s Rehabilitation Revolution by Rougher Retribution. As when Eric Pickles paraded his plans to obstruct the union activities of local authority workers on the grounds that this will make the unions stronger.
The LibDems no longer alert us about global warming or the dangers of eating non-organic food, which, to anyone interested in political matters, was only mildly irritating. Now they are preoccupied with their agonised wrestling to keep their place on the same side of the Commons as Cameron’s Tories while plugging the gaps left by those infamously dishonoured election pledges. Their method has been to placate the outraged voters while avoiding the question of why any of their future promises should be believed. This wretched come-down dominated their conference, not alleviated by Nick Clegg and his fumbling efforts to divert attention from their exposure: “There is a better, more meaningful future waiting for us. Not as a third party, but as one of the parties of government… Stop looking in the rear-view mirror as we journey from the party of opposition that we were, to the party of government we are becoming”.
But those images in Clegg’s rear-view mirror could not have inspired the LibDems as examples for the future. Such as: “I see generations of Liberals marching towards the sound of gunfire” – a phrase first offered by the charmingly mannered Old Etonian, Jo Grimond, their leader from November 1956 to January 1967. Under Grimond the Liberals were on the rise, for example, winning the safe Tory seat of Orpington in 1958 but then declined. In July 1976 David Steel took over, offering the party some hope with his livelier style, and for a while this seemed to bear fruit, but in March 1977 Steel stuffed them into an uncomfortable alliance with Callaghan’s Labour government, and when this failed to keep Labour in power in 1988 he managed the merger with the discredited Gang of Four’s SDP. However, there was persistent enmity between Steel and the SDP’s leader David Owen, a symptom of which was Steel agreeing to a joint policy document without having read it. This year a triumphant Clegg told the conference that Paddy Ashdown will head the party’s general election team – the same Paddy Ashdown whose failure to improve the party’s prospects came to an end with his resignation in 1999. None of these men in the rear-view mirror succeeded in raising the Liberals to the point when they could be seen as an alternative government for British capitalism. When Clegg proclaimed to the conference that the LibDems stand for “a fair, free and open society,” he was offering just another pledge, to be judged by the party’s dismal history of failure.
Vote for Disraeli?
When it was time for Ed Miliband to stand at the rostrum he knew – because almost the entire British media had blanketed him with the advice – that this was his make or break time. He slaved at learning his lines off by heart so that as he boarded the train to Birmingham he was as word perfect as any Old Vic veteran. Although an eavesdropping fellow passenger heard him spurting in frustration “What am I doing? Who knows what I’m doing? Where’s my fucking diary?” he came through to make a speech arousing the massive satisfaction of party members and the media – which can be explained only by reference to their impoverished standards of expectation. Plunging into typical politicians’ gobbledygook, Miliband referred (no less than 44 times) to the concept of One-Nation, with an implied salute to Benjamin Disraeli whose name is forever linked to the phrase – which was also used by Tony Blair in Labour’s election winning 1997 manifesto: “I want a Britain that is one nation, with shared values and purpose…” At a time of recession, with the promise of even fiercer pressure on our living standards, the best Miliband and his party can do is urge us to have regard to the words of a Victorian politician (whose concern for the effects of the class divide and its resultant problems did not endure into what might be called history) and of a recent leader with the reputation of a blatant liar. Meanwhile in the real world, the British Medical Journal, supported by the Samaritans, reports that as unemployment increases so does the rate of suicide.
The Tories went to their conference this year desperate to hear that George Osborne and his magicians at the Treasury will soon have dissolved the recession into history. In a characteristically empty speech David Cameron was able to feed their appetite. For the LibDems Nick Clegg could do little more than console them for the angry likelihood of approaching doom and his own banishment to bitter memory. Ed Miliband showed that he has finally grasped the need for any aspirant political leader to compose a speech consisting of headlines and vacant posturing. None of them could suggest that for human society there should be something other, better or more hopeful. The case for us doing it for ourselves, for changing the way we order the world so that it is to the betterment of humans, remained intact and unchallenged.