Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Looking Forward To A Labour Conference

You need to be a strange animal to find party conferences interesting. Given a choice between watching the speeches of wanabee Cabinet ministers or embittered has-beens and watching paint dry, most people would say “show me the wall”. And in recent times you couldn’t really blame them. So stage-managed and choreographed have most set-piece political gatherings become, the Nick Robinsons and Adam Boultons of this world can usually write their reports in advance. This year in Manchester though, things could just be different.

Those of us who are old enough remember the Labour Conferences of old; the stand-up rows between Neil Kinnock and Derek Hatton, Arthur Scargill barracking from the sidelines, the catcalls and mudslinging. So much conflict and hatred, it was difficult to believe that all these people were actually supposed to be on the same side.

It’s hard to imagine that the 2008 variety will be quite of that vintage. Scope for real debate on the floor of the conference is hugely limited. Terrified of televised dissent, party managers limit the opportunity for real argument as much as possible. Most of the key policy decisions are taken during the rest of the year now, immunised from the perils of the union block vote. Nevertheless, Conference delegates still have one key responsibility left of which they have not yet been denuded; they – and only they – can force a leadership election.

Much of the argument will take place away from the public’s gaze; in closed meetings, in hotel bedrooms, in the discreet corners of function rooms. But we do have the delicious prospect of a card vote on whether there should be a contest for the leadership of the Labour Party and, de facto, for the post of Prime Minister. It is impossible to contemplate such a dramatic picture without letting one’s mind run over the likelihood of it actually occurring. So, what are Gordon Brown’s chances of getting through next week without a formal call for his head ?

The summer has been excruciating for Labour and for Brown. Since the calamitous Glasgow East by-election, good news has made about as frequent an appearance as the blazing sun. The polls have been and remain wretched; a 20-point deficit is par for what is becoming the course from Hell. The economy, from 1997 the mainstay of Labour’s strength, is heading for recession; while voters struggle desperately with rising fuel and food prices, the Treasury, supposedly the bastion of past prudence, has precious little to fall back on with which to bail them out. Further data disasters, the SATs fiasco, grim news from Afghanistan, high profile knife and gun crime…and so it goes on.

Gradually the case for the prosecution is assembling its witnesses. A few days ago the previously loyal Polly Toynbee, the media's darling of the Left, broke ranks with a potentially devastating analysis which talked in terms of the “overpowering smell of death about this government”. Now Jackie Ashley muses over the possible destruction of Labour. From the Commons, a small but growing number of MPs’ silhouettes have become discernable over the parapet. Nor are the headlines likely to improve over the autumn; further bankruptcies and job losses are certain, and the Glenrothes by-election – seen by some as Brown’s last chance even if he does survive the threat of a challenge emerging in Manchester – as good as lost already. Small wonder you might think, that commentators are likening all this to the last months of the Major government, and are fine-tuning Brown’s obituary. Some think the deal is as good as done. I’m not convinced.

Bad though the news may be, there is amble threat posed by the other horn of this dreadful dilemma for Labour and its supporters. For a start, by no means the smallest of the problems faced by Brown’s opponents is the lack of a front-running alternative. Critics tell us that it is a sign of a dearth of talent within the Cabinet that even in these dark times no one seems to be able to outshine an under performing prime minister. Whatever the real reason, the trouble is that there really is no obvious successor to Brown. David Miliband probably broke cover too early with his infamous Guardian article last month, and has since beat a careful – although perhaps not permanent - retreat. Meanwhile Jack Straw could only be seen as a caretaker leader at best and the likes of Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson and John Hutton do not have the public standing needed to rescue the government from its dire position. Polls consistently tell us that Labour would do no better with someone (anyone) other than Gordon Brown.

Another reason for the hesitancy amongst rebels in wielding the knife may well be a reluctance among potential replacements to pick up such a contaminated chalice. So bleak is the outlook for Labour that in many eyes the job specification simply reads “Lead your party to electoral oblivion”. Better perhaps, to leave it to someone else to be crucified on some Thursday night in the middle distance, and then be seen as the one who helps picks up the pieces and restore shattered confidence, rebuilding a grateful party in your own image.

Yet, aside from the aspirations and calculations of those waiting in the wings, there is a more telling factor that may yet bind the Labour party to stick with what it has. It is a point increasingly used by Brown loyalists as the financial storm gathers strength: the electorate wants a government which concentrates on the job in hand, and doesn't argue amongst itself. Amidst all the talk of Meltdown Monday, the most volatile markets for eighty years and all the more widespread economic challenges, the PM’s supporters warn of the dangers in a navel-gazing leadership election. The electorate, they say, want a united Cabinet which concentrates on the job in hand; they do not want to see careerist politicians squabbling among themselves for the top job. It is a powerful argument, and one that is hard to dismiss. Ironically, this mighty economic emergency, the source of so much pain and angst in Number Ten, may still prove to be Brown’s strongest ally.

For the spectators, it is a wonderfully complex, uncertain equation. Seasoned political commentators are finding it impossible to judge what will happen. Underneath the surface of Labour’s increasingly turbulent waters there is feverish plotting, coaxing, promises and threats. It may all erupt next week in a tsunami of blood-letting and back-stabbing. Futures might be decided, careers may be made and broken. Watch out for excitement next week; it could be pure theatre.