Labour’s annual conference has long been a machine operation designed to showcase the Leader’s speech and to suppress any serious discussion of other controversial matters (and the Tory party conference is, if anything, even more orchestrated). It is done to convey a contented and anodyne impression for the television cameras, and the result is of course ineffably bland and boring. The economic debate was a good example. Some 60% of the allotted time was taken up by shadow ministers like directors giving the company report to shareholders, about 10% was devoted to the moving and seconding of lengthy resolutions, and the remaining 30% to the floor. However those speakers from the floor weren’t drawn at random, they were in every single case selected beforehand. Thus they turned out to be exclusively union leaders or parliamentary candidates, about 8 of them, not a single ordinary delegate. Even more alarmingly, there was no debate on economic policy as such at all: the first half of the debate was on workplace rights and the second was introduced by the spokesman on welfare reform – both important subjects, but not economic policy.
All this marks just how far the conference has been hijacked since the days of Blair from its original and proper function as Labour’s supreme policy-making body. Democracy – the heaving soul of the Labour Movement as conference was poignantly described 30 years ago – has been replaced by democratic centralism. Debates certainly take place and even votes, but in the last analysis policy is what the Leader says it is. The life of the conference, such as it is, is in the packed fringe meetings, but these rarely get reported except as an indication of party splits.
Nor have the shenanigans which have so often tarnished the operation of party elections yet been eliminated. Party officials, who are meant to be as scrupulously impartial as civil servants in government, continue to be caught out discriminatorily promoting the candidature of certain candidates preferred by the establishment or lobbying in debates for support for the platform line, a practice ruthlessly honed to perfection by the Blair and Brown regimes. They made sure that both regional and national officials very largely reflected their own factional prejudices, so that through them their influence could be disseminated throughout the party. Even this year an official was overheard telling a delegate that “We’re backing x as the candidate” – a mishap from officials’ point of view only in the sense that the advice was overheard. Yet corrupt behaviour of this kind should merit a final warning, and any repetition a sacking.