The good, the bad and the ugly of Labour conference
This is the first year for a long time I haven’t attended Labour Party Conference with my work hat on. For those of us who do, or have done, the Party Conference circuit, it is always fascinating to contrast and compare. Of course Lib Dem Conference is usually a somewhat genteel event (I can remember being shocked that no one heckled on my first outing!), Conservative just reinforced all my stereotypical prejudices, and Labour – Labour reminded me more of Unison conference, to which I was a delegate for many years. And I have to say I did miss my annual conference meal with former Labour Bedford MP and dear friend, Patrick Hall.
The first thing I noticed was the mood, upbeat, growing in confidence. And the tone, more “new old Labour” reminding me of the values Labour had before it was hijacked by the Blairites. And it was good to hear so many young people speaking, I have to say I was personally moved listening to Zeeba Hanif, talking about domestic abuse and the impact legal aid cuts will have on victims, she is certainly one to watch.
So what of the content? While most of the fire was reserved for the Tories, some of the bile directed in the Lib Dem direction was in my view ill-judged. Whatever the dinosaur tribalists in the Labour Party think, or want, the reality is, they may need to do business with us in the future. If Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” rhetoric is to become a reality, there has to be more recognition of what unites us as well as what divides us, and that applies as much, if not more, to politics as anywhere else in society. And it is clear, there is far more that unites Lib Dems and Labour than Lib Dems and the Tories. Let’s not forget, we have had successful coalitions with Labour in both Scotland and Wales, more successful, I would argue, because of those shared values. Most of us have to live our lives consensually, while our adversarial first past the post archaic political system makes it almost impossible to honestly put what works before political point scoring. As someone who was and remains totally opposed to the Coalition, there has to be some recognition that it was that tribalist faction in the Labour Party that left us with only two other options. And despite Ed Miliband’s attempts to rewrite history, the fact remains that it was New Labour who took on the Thatcher mantle to champion the marketisation of public services – paving the way for the further privatisation of health and education.
I couldn’t find much to argue with in the debate on a Living Wage. Interestingly, this is something many of us in the Lib Dems are arguing should feature in our next manifesto. Similarly the debate on justice was generally refreshing and encouraging. With Sadiq Khan as shadow Justice Secretary it is heartening to hear his commitment to restorative justice, and having spoken on the issue of women prisoners at our conference I almost cheered out loud when I heard his call to recognise how important it is to try and keep women out of prison. I mused about how ironic it was to hear Sadiq berating the Coalition on civil liberties issues, given Labour’s history in this area. But of course I welcome his opposition to further erosions of our civil liberties and trust that the Damascus Road conversion the party appear to have had on these issues will be sustained when they are again in power.
So what of the leader’s speech? As others have observed, Ed Miliband demonstrated his ability to set the running – he may struggle with his image, but his political instincts are inscrutable. To steal a Tory slogan, and own it, is genius. And to touch that nerve which most ordinary people in this country will respond to – the level of inequality in this country is not only immoral, it is deeply damaging to us all.
So, my overall impression was that there was a lot of common ground – what’s not to like? But as an outsider I found myself grimacing at some of the tribalism that undoubtedly holds Labour back, reminding me of the fundamentalist churches who see anyone who doesn’t absolutely share every creed as clearly unable to call themselves Christian. So those of us who may share many of the same values, believing in a fairer more equal society where (in the words of our Lib Dem constitution) “no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” and who self identify as progressive social liberals, believe it is time to talk. Even if there is an outright winner at the next election, surely there are still issues we can get some consensus on in order to make this country that we all love, a better, safer place to live, work and grow.