Playing the part of a party

Theatrics at the Labour conference.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

If everybody was being honest with themselves, the Labour Party could cancel its annual party conference and hold a week-long press conference instead.

Privately many people admitted that this wasn’t really a party conference. This wasn’t about people with shared interests coming together, to debate their programme for the coming year. One journalist described the conference hall as a ‘black hole’ – ‘there’s nothing going on there, it’s certainly not the place to hang out’. As with ‘a donut’, the action goes on around the hole, in conference fringe events and networking. Another reporter said that the debate on the conference floor ‘doesn’t count for anything’.

Instead of a conference, we got the Great Party Conference Show. Delegates were aware that they had only walk-on parts. A representative of the Cooperative Bank, who had been a Labour Party member for 20 years, said that conference was mainly ‘for the media’. ‘What will the media make of Blair’s speech?’, he mused. ‘No doubt they’ll read something into it.’ He complained that politics had become ‘more managerial’, and that ‘conference motions don’t become party policy’. A delegate in her thirties agreed: ‘The media have more influence than us’, she said. A young Labour member claimed that ‘The leadership aren’t accountable to the grassroots’.

Whatever their private views, all sides put considerable effort into sustaining the public performance. Adversaries conspired to help preserve the myth that this was, in fact, a party conference. Delegates trooped down from all parts of the country, giving up a week of their time and forking out for accommodation. The media turned up on cue, and wrote articles about how Blair would need to try hard to ‘win over the party faithful’. Labour Party officials strung up banners over Brighton, blaring out ‘a better life for all’ in pink, purple, yellow and green.

It is a myth that Labour conferences of the past wrote party policy. Leaders usually felt free to ignore motions as necessary. But the difference was that there at least used to be some real debate about political issues, with the rank and file proposing alternative policies. ‘People used to come for a fight’, said one delegate – ‘they would come with their position, and fight it out’.

Today, conference is about making gestures, rather than staking out a political position. People stand up in the conference hall and argue for this or that, but the words are primarily symbolic. Political phrases and positions are used to claim a leading role in the conference drama. Delegates take a political position to say, ‘we’re here, listen to us’, even through they seem to have little to say.

On Monday, the unions defied the leadership to pass a motion on rail nationalisation. One representative for the manufacturing union Amicus, who had voted for the motion, told me that he didn’t really think that the railways should be nationalised. ‘Everybody knows that we can’t afford it.’ The vote wasn’t a political proposal, he said, but ‘a protest, a shot across the bows to the leadership, to show them that we’re here’.

The same applied to the heavyweight speeches. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s speeches were dissected, not for political content, but for signs of personal manoeuvring. Brown distinguished himself from Blair by deliberately not referring to ‘choice’; instead he used the phrase ‘progressive consensus’ (whatever that meant). Blair’s response was conciliatory: he picked up the ‘progressive’ phrase, even using it three times in one sentence, and talked about ‘Labour’ rather than ‘New Labour’.

The theatre continued outside the conference hall. There was a furore when a group of armed police rounded on one pro-foxhunting protester. Eight TV cameras were at the scene within a minute – the police had a video camera too, as did a couple of the protesters. A few minutes later the police left and the crowd dispersed. The cause of the commotion? Apparently the protester had been wearing a balaclava, and the police told him that he wasn’t allowed to hide his face. ‘It’s only for our benefit’, muttered one reporter. ‘It’s so that the police can show they are doing something, and feel good about themselves.’

Other protests bordered on the surreal. When political action becomes a gesture, an act of self-expression, there’s no telling what people will do. One man in a suit, whose son had been killed in Iraq, tried to hang himself off the burnt-out West Pier. Eventually he came down and made a statement, saying that Blair had ‘lied to the nation, to me and to my son’. In another incident, countryside protesters left animal carcases – two calves, a cow and a horse – around the city. ‘The calves had been dead for some time – they were starting to smell’, said one reporter.

Of course, the Great Party Conference Show is showing its cracks. The best paper membership figure the Labour Party can drum up is 208,000 (1), half of that when Blair became prime minister in 1997 (and Labour leading light Douglas Alexander MP admits that they’ve held on to many members because they signed up on direct debit in 1997). ‘There were fewer commercial stalls at conference this year, and there were problems getting sponsorship’, said one delegate. He also noted that it had been very easy to get tickets for the leader’s speech, normally a sell-out slot. When Labour is desperate to get bums on conference seats, it’s not surprising that pro-hunting protesters managed to join up and wing their way into Blair’s speech.

At a debate organised by the think-tank Demos called ‘After the Party’, rising Blairite star David Lammy MP admitted that the ‘political party is in deep trouble’. Douglas Alexander added that this wasn’t just about New Labour, but was a ‘problem across the Western world’. Political parties are causalities of the post-Cold War world. With the end of the battle between left and right, parties have been left without a raison d’etre. Parties were built up to represent opposing views on how society should be organised. Today they are left as hollowed out shells.

The Labour Party has been a hollow shell for some time. It is no longer a political movement, with a defined identity and roots in society. Yet the party structure is preserved by the self-delusion and passivity of its members. People seem to cling to the party – they troop along and play their parts, aware that they are only going through the motions. Why? Partly out of security, perhaps, or habit. The Labour Party is the vestige of another political age, and it offers some reassurance at a time of political uncertainty. ‘It’s mutual affirmation’, said one conference attendee. ‘People like to think that they are part of something.’

Others stick with the Labour Party out of pragmatism. Lobbyists join up in an attempt to get access to ministers. ‘If you want to affect policy, this is the place to be’, said one anti-racism campaigner. ‘Politics is all about pragmatism’, said a union delegate. Blair is ‘successful’, he said, and Blair and Brown make a ‘formidable partnership’. The media is party to the illusion, playing up theatrical contests between Blair and Brown, or protesters and police, reporting them as if they were real and important.

People may drift away from Labour over Iraq, but there isn’t enough political energy to force a split in the party. Some members feel alienated, but theirs is a plaintive cry to just be recognised by the leadership, rather than a real rebellion. An audience member at ‘After the Party’ complained that her branch had lost more people over Iraq than anything else. ‘What should the Labour Party do?’, asked the chair. ‘We just want to be listened to’, she said, ‘we don’t give anything back’. Other audience members said that the relationship between leaders and members was too much of a ‘one-way street’, and that they wanted to have their voices heard. Most people I spoke to seemed pretty happy with Blair’s speech, particularly his gesture of humility over WMD. ‘It was good that he admitted he was wrong’, said one delegate.

The Great Party Conference Show will wing its way to Blackpool or Bournemouth for 2005. It seems to be in everybody’s interest to keep the show on the road.

(1) Labour membership halved, Guardian, 3 August 2004

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Topics Politics


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