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Will future Labour conferences be as boring as the Lib Dems?

Nick CleggWhy does the Liberal Democrat conference look so boring? In the bare basics of their procedures and practices, the Lib Dems probably crack down on dissent and debate less than Labour or the Tories. And yet as middle aged white men with horrendous jumpers take to the podium on TV, I can’t help thanking god Labour’s not like that. Even if Clegg’s lot do seem to have a more laissez-faire party machine.

Maybe it’s because when you see this bunch vote for a mild-mannered “investigation” into the bedroom tax, you know that it’s the same lot who voted overwhelmingly for the coalition agreement that props such measures up. But it’s bigger than that. You look at them and you wonder what binds them together. And it turns out it’s only the membership card of an increasingly irrelevant organisation. No common principles other than wishy-washery and opportunism. No class solidarity. And a tradition that was always confused and contrived to begin with.

What’s different about Labour conference? It’s simple enough: the trade unions. Whether it’s the speeches in the hall, or the entertainment provided on the fringe, the unions keep delegates going with constant reminders of why the Labour party exists to begin with. The presence of trade unions means that there is not only one collective entity – the parliamentary faction – with power at conference. More debate, more excitement, for sure, and these are important in any political event. But it’s also what makes Labour a far more worthwhile project than other parties.

When there’s a grassroots rebellion at Lib Dem conference, it feels like a sad collection of individuals trying to stamp on the leadership’s opportunism with their own. When there’s a rebellion at Labour conference, it feels like a reassertion that the Labour movement is more than simply the leadership.

This year, watching the events of Lib Dem conference struck a newly-worrying chord. Is this where Labour will be in ten years time, following the news that the trade union link is set to be replaced by opt-in individual affiliation? No. If the party bureaucrats get their way and break the union link, it will be worse: a conference as ungrounded as the Lib Dems’, combined with an extra-strong dose of the control-freakery in which Labour seems to specialise.

There is one other way in which future Labour conferences could emulate the Lib Dems in 2013. Devoid of financial support from trade unions, boots on the ground and a leadership showing no signs of offering a coherent alternative to austerity, the demoralisation in the air will be as thick. Perhaps we’ll be all be drinking milk and water, too, with no trade unions to sponsor fringe events. But all might not be lost – if Progress are still around, we might get a couple of bottles of Taste the Difference sparkling rose.

There will be no collective voices to challenge the leadership and the  because the Miliband vision of trade union involvement seems to be exactly what trade unions are not – individuals.

Before the last general election, Nick Clegg made the pitch that only the Lib Dems could be trusted to exercise independent political judgment, and not be swayed by ‘vested interests’. Cameron’s Tories were doing the bidding of financial backer Lord Ashcroft, and Brown’s Labour was in cahoots with the leaders of the British Airways strike (a nice bit of anti-union rhetoric from the Lib Dems at a time when many on the left were still singing their praises).

The parallel was ludicrous, and stones and glass houses come to mind. But looking back, he had a point. The Tories have their own interests to represent – and Labour does too, and takes the cleanest money in politics for that reason. Any party that claims to be independent of interests can never be a people’s party. If Labour goes down this course, it will end, like the Liberal Democrats, offering the same interest politics as the Tories. Representing the establishment, but doing a less good job of it. If delegates don’t stand up and protest against the Collins review at Brighton, things can only get far worse.

6 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    I find the Lib Dem Conference massively boring. But Labour Conferences are not exactly exciting affairs. An indication of its potential to bore is given in the anodyne and evasive text of the allegedly policy setting document that is the NPF Report 2013.

    I am interested in the comment on the Lib Dems: “You look at them and you wonder what binds them together. And it turns out it’s only the membership card of an increasingly irrelevant organisation. No common principles other than wishy-washery and opportunism. No class solidarity.”

    Does that mean that Conrad believes that the Labour Party is one in which the members are bound together with a common sense of purpose and class solidarity? If so all I can say is that I hadn’t noticed and, furthermore, it would be difficult to follow the articles and discussions on Left Futures and draw that conclusion.

  2. John p Reid says:

    Oh for the days when hang mans nooses ,use to come down or the leadership were booed, while others stormed off stage!,or referred to as Jackals

  3. swatantra says:

    All Party/TUC Conferences are boring snoring. Same pale male and stale delegates dominating.
    Votes are gerrymandered block votes, no real discussion of any sort in the Hall. No real decisions taken by the assembled great and the good; most of the action the real debate goes on, outside in the Fringes and in the drinking holes. Depressing.

  4. David Pavett says:

    @John p Reid

    A possible alternative to the current situation and the scenario you describe would be to have genuine debates based on high quality information with a view to working out new policies to deal with unresolved differences as a basis for a general consensus.

  5. I think the vast majority of rank-and-file Labour party members join because they feel a sense of common purpose and solidarity, and want to create a more equal society. It would be going too far to say all felt ‘class solidarity’, but some do. I said there was ‘no class solidarity’ in the Lib Dems to express the fact that the Lib Dems’ platitudes to equality have never been associated with class representation, whereas at least there is a tradition at Labour conference of motions on pro-working-class policies being proposed by trade unionists.

  6. Conrad; That’s a rather naive article,if I may be allowed to say so.Surely you realise that getting rid of the T.U. block vote from the Labour Party conference/constitution was always the aim of the right wing leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party/Labour Party(George Brown, Harold Wilson, Barbara Castle, Jim Callaghan etc)once they realised that they had lost control of the Labour Party conference and National Executive to the left in the late 1960’s(Tribune, T.U. leaders like Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones, Lawrence Daly etc,left M.P.s like Foot(in those days)Stan Orme, Frank Allaun,Eric Heffer, Norman Atkinson)This strategy/policy was vigorously pursued even more so by Mandelson, Bliar and the New Labour gang.Their fervent desire was always to get rid of the Trade Union link and replace it with City and Corporate donations to finance the Labour Party, and it nearly succeeded until the defenestration of Bliar and the banks crash,fortunately they now are only left with Lord Sainsbury’s funding of Progress and that is not the bottomless pit they hoped it would be.
    The sycophantic, vomit inducing charade in Glagow this week by Clegg and his Titanic Orchestra only reveals his political bankruptcy and utter desparation of his situation.
    You further reveal how politically naive you are on the point of the difference between a grassroots rebellion at the Lib/Dems conference and the Labour Party conference. Where have you been all these years when the Labour leadership have turned round to conference and said in effect, you can vote whatever you like ,the Parliamentary Labour Party will not be bound by your decisions(thats democracy in practice for you)
    Don’t doubt your sincerity as a rather naive Labour Party member; but surely you must realise that while Milliband is possibly the best leader the Labour Party has had for years, wether through weakness or appeasing the majority of his Shadow Cabinet(useless New Labour tossers that they are)he has allowed himself to be steamrollered into a scurrilous and utterly false media campaign(with full New Labour support) to smash the Trade Union link with the Labour Partywith utterly disastrous results for Labour..

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