The Battle of Walter’s Heckle
You know the Labour Party conference is in a bad way when this year's political highlight was the ejection of an 82-year-old, mild-mannered heckler.
Labour leader Tony Blair has been forced to apologise for the removal of an 82-year-old heckler from the party conference. But Blair’s critics have reason to be shamefaced, too.
Walter Wolfgang claims that all he shouted was ‘nonsense’ during foreign secretary Jack Straw’s speech. However, he was immediately, and quite forcibly, ejected from the auditorium. Later, Wolfgang was held by the police under the Terrorism Act when he tried to re-enter the conference.
The incident is a huge embarrassment for the party leadership – and great news for bored political journalists. ‘This is how the Labour Party today handled dissent, dissent from a man who’s been a member since before Tony Blair was born’, intoned BBC political editor Nick Robinson over pictures of the pensioner being unceremoniously turfed out. Perhaps Robinson hopes to have a future career doing the voiceovers for horror film trailers.
Certainly Blair was horrified by the pictures. ‘I am really sorry about it, it shouldn’t have happened’, he told BBC Breakfast viewers this morning. ‘It is difficult for them [stewards] when someone is interrupting someone’s speech, but it should be handled sensitively, particularly with an older person.’ He said the stewards were volunteers. Given their size, Labour clearly feeds its volunteers very well.
The reaction to Wolfgang’s rather mild-mannered heckle, which was barely audible during Straw’s speech, is illustrative of how the conference has changed. Once a rambunctious showcase for the party’s left-wing to criticise the leadership, the conference is now an anodyne convention where criticism is seldom tolerated. This year’s stage-managed set-pieces in a half-empty hall are a far cry from the barracking that chancellor Denis Healey received in 1976, or the rows over Militant in the Eighties.
The defensiveness of the leadership illustrates that they don’t much enjoy the idea of being held to account in public. They would prefer a handpicked crowd wearing big foam hands and banners saying ‘Four more years, Tony!’. Such defensiveness comes from the lack of any defining idea that can justify Labour’s existence or policies. When the current chancellor, Gordon Brown, proclaimed that Labour was ‘the party of the first-ever winter allowance, the first-ever free TV licenses, the first-ever national system for free local bus travel’, it was never going to stir the blood.
However, if Blair’s apology for the Wolfgang ejection was cringeworthy, the reaction of the trade unions and the left was even worse. Presented to a union fringe meeting last night, Wolfgang received an ovation. Nothing better illustrates the impotence of the opposition to Blair than the fact that the stiffest blow it landed all conference was a bit of shouting from the back of the hall by an old man.
The reaction of the conservative press had the same air of grasping at straws. ‘The ugly face of New Labour’, declared the leader in the Daily Mail. ‘An 82-year old Jewish fugitive from Nazi Germany who lost family in the Holocaust, Walter Wolfgang knows a thing or two about how freedom of speech is suppressed.’ Attempting to suggest some kind of moral equivalence between being kicked out of a debate for being noisy and the Holocaust points to desperation on a grand scale.
While a little schadenfreude at the expense of the high and mighty is always welcome, the Battle of Walter’s Heckle demonstrates that it is a piss-poor substitute for a proper political alternative.
Where have all the political parties gone?, by Mick Hume
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