30 YEARS AGO……
Exactly thirty years ago Neil Kinnock launched his famous attack on Liverpool’s Militant Tendency at the party conference. His reference to taxis being hired by a Labour council to take redundancy notices to the city’s council staff has become legendary or infamous depending on your point of view. The speech marked the beginning of a necessary purge of Trotskyist infiltration. It also marked the last time the Labour conference was a showcase for disunity.
For over a decade the Labour conference had laid bare its divisions for the TV audience to see. That had to be stopped. However over the years, and particularly after Tony Blair’s public relations team took over in 1994, all dissent was marginalised. Real debate was discouraged and policy was formed in the National Policy Forum which was firmly in the grip of the leadership. It was an overreaction to the mayhem of 1975-85.
So what’s going to happen this weekend now that the party is lead by Jeremy Corbyn, the arch dissenter. He wants real debate in a democratically run party. Let’s hope we get it. The public might respond well. They seem to have liked his style at Prime Minister’s Questions. On the other hand a demonstration of total policy incoherence might turn them away. That was what worried the party managers under Kinnock, Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband.
I am certainly looking forward to my second visit to the south coast to see the rebel of thirty years standing now in charge. Some are speculating this will be his only conference as leader, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Over the next few months leading up to important elections next May, Corbyn has the ability to rally different sections of the electorate to his new way of doing politics. There are many Scots who deserted the party out of frustration with austerity rather than any desire for independence. If they come back in numbers in the Scottish Parliament elections, Corbyn’s critics will be muted. Then there are Green supporters impressed by his environmental policies and general radicalism. But the largest group of all are the young, the poor, people disillusioned with politics or who have never engaged. Some were mobilised by the Corbyn campaign. Will they stay around? Will others join them? Will they watch the coverage of a party conference for the first time?
LIB DEMS AND CORBYN.
Whilst Scots, Greens and radicals might rally to Corbyn, the Liberal Democrats were hoping this week that they could occupy, what they saw as, the huge gap opening up in the middle of politics. Although at one fringe meeting after another I heard speakers saying they weren’t in the centre, they were Liberals they nevertheless believe the Tories have swung right because they are no longer in Coalition with them. With Corbyn off to the left, they see an opportunity. What they must avoid is opening the door too easily to defecting Labour MPs. They mostly won’t be true Liberals, just careerists trying to save their seats.
If Labour’s conference in Brighton is going to return to real debate, it is only fair to point out that the Lib Dems have always maintained that tradition. The debate last Monday on the Trident nuclear weapons system was open and excellent.
Perhaps the Conservatives will try it in Manchester next month but don’t hold your breath.