Sunday, September 21, 2008

Manchester special brew

Predictably, yesterday's thousands of antiwar protesters outside the Labour Party conference in Manchester received less coverage than the BNP's pathetic 300 turnout for its totemic rally at Stoke. On the other hand, David Cameron's bicycle helmet got more coverage than the antiwar protesters. Anyway, like the contents of said helmet, this week's festival of New Labourism is likely to be a hollow affair. Anyone expecting a coup is going to be disappointed. The supporters of David Miliband wouldn't be so stupid as to use the conference as their springboard, the Left isn't going to be represented, and the unions will save their blows for block voting on policy desiderata such as higher public sector pay. Jon Cruddas may be staking out territory for a broad left leadership campaign, but for now he is backing Brown's pathetic loyalty campaign, presumably sensing that he hasn't yet the strength to prevail in any sudden leadership election.

Even so, with figures this bad, it has to be an uneasy week for the Brownites. The Independent tries to save Brown's hide with this deceptive headline, showing a big fall in the Tory lead. They attribute this to Brown's pledges to 'clean up' the City. In fact, the rise in Labour's standing is within the margin of error, while the Tory fall is mainly due to a 5% surge in Lib Dem support, which I would imagine is a statistical anomaly rather than a tribute to the former Hitchens intern Nick Clegg and his aristocratic charisma. As the Indy's report demonstrates, voters may not like Miliband or Cameron that much, but they are sick to the back teeth of Brown's leadership. So, the fact remains that Labour is headed for a wipeout in both marginals and 'heartlands' in 2010. They will lose seats they've held since the Great War, and the cabinet will be gutted. Given the logic of defending Brown at all costs, those soft left PLP members who want a modest change of policy - by, for example, imposing a windfall tax on the energy companies - are relenting on any serious campaign to obtain such change. Ironically, though they seem to be worried about the arch-Blairites taking over, this strategy concedes the argument to Charles Clarke et al: Labour can't win with Brown, they will say, and no one else is stepping up to the plate. Everyone else is locked into Brown's electoral suicide-pact.

This week's proceedings, though there will be tussles below the surface, will not be about a leadership challenge, but about re-asserting Labour's claim to government. To that extent, it will in all probability deliver the following sentiments (in no particular order): things are tough, but the main problem is that our message isn't getting out to people (a whinge about the media); British people are rightly concerned about the economy, but don't want to go back to the old ways (rebuke the Left, reassure business); we said we'd do x and we've done x, we said we'd do y and we're doing y, we said we'd do z and plans to fastrack z are already in place (delivery schtick); people have legitimate concerns about immigration, and we are responding to that, but we must also make the argument for a sensible immigration policy (we should be prudently racist); let's have a frank and honest debate about a, b and c (shut up and listen); we must work to strengthen our international commitments, to defend our values - sure to be pronounced 'vawlyews' at some point - not only against extremism but also against poverty and disease (let's hope Obama wins so that we can continue to throw troops at perpetual war zones and impose neoliberal measures without being associated with a bunch of headcases); we must act on the environment using the most technologically efficient solutions for a clean, modern economy (more nuclear power stations for us, less for Iran); so let us show boldness and vision, now more than ever, and let us show that the people of this country - who are intelligent and rational - will do better with a government of 'the many, not the few' than with a party that whatever their promises to the contrary will always represent the few against the many (we have nothing else up our sleeves, but it's either us or the Tories). Unto which, the party faithful will lard praise and exultation in the desperate hope that their enthusiasm will prove cathing enough to prevent the inevitable massacre.