A virtual conference goer (and his cat)

26th September, 2011 8:35 am

Hopi at Home

By Hopi Sen

I’m a cheat. I wanted to be a virtual conference goer, poring over plenary sessions and speeches by absorbing the twitter, rolling news and app based #Lab11 data flow available to today’s keyboard warrior. But I didn’t. I got up, had a coffee, read the papers, and then, shamelessly abandoned the Sunday morning interview merry-go-round to cheer on the runners at the Greenwich half marathon. Then I watched the Grand Prix. Then I went for my own run.

Only now, am I catching up with Conference Day 1. I’m reading the reactions to our new policy announcement on Tuition fees, catching up with the morning interviews, reading the final deal on Refounding Labour, and feeling a little sad I missed my friend Iain McNicol’s inaugural speech as Labour General Secretary. When I was at conference, by this time, I’d be gossiping in a crowded hotel bar over bad wine or trying to restrain the urge to stangle someone whose question went on longer than this opening preamble.

After nearly two decades of going to Conference every year (Though I think I missed 2009), the first thing that’s surprised me how little compulsion I feel to follow it from home, even though my various media devices are all mobile, charged and ready to roll. Did I mention I’ve got a cat who can play fetch? If you ever wonder why Press Officers are so obsessed with politicians tediously repeating the line, of presenting almost everything in the most simplified and digestible phrasing imaginable, it’s because even people like me are spending our Conference weekend in the garden playing fetch with our cats.

This mildly surprising indifference perhaps explains why the first thing I’ve noticed about conference is how big we talk whenever I do tune in. I listen to our leaders on TV, and by gosh, they’re full of their ability to do all sorts of stuff. We can deliver growth. We can rip up the Rulebooks and take on Vested interests. We’ll fulfill the promise of Britain. We stand for the squeezed middle and hard working families, on whose behalf we’ll sternly lecture the nation.

We’re pretty full of ourselves, to be honest. There’s little shade, little humour, definitely no modesty. Just a relentless assertion of the greatness and commonality of our values. Even Ed Miliband, who I’m lucky enough to have chatted to a couple of times, and who struck me as a remarkably modest, understated, gentle politician (though also clearly pretty steely underneath), was in full on Alpha male mode on the morning telly shows. He may even have done that pokey thing with his finger that denotes a TV-era politician being truly passionate.

But here’s an odd thing. When we’re not saying how great our current policies and politicians are, we’re apologising for the past. We got Iraq out of the way last year, but this year, we’re admitting how badly wrong we got Immigration, bank regulation, and (I think) housing. Oh, and we’re celebrating the end of the Neo-Liberal consensus, which we were part of, but David Cameron and Angela Merkel and Nikolas Sarkozy weren’t.

Now, I like to bang on about how much we got wrong in the last Government as much as the next man. In fact I’ve got five thousand words up in the current edition of renewal, on that very topic. (It’s brilliantly insightful, by the way, and everyone should read it. Not my words but those of… Oh OK, they’re my words.)

There’s a difference though,between explaining where we went wrong in articles in Quarterly magazines and hinting at what to do about it, and issuing a stream of more or less irrelevant mea culpas. For someone not paying careful attention, we seem to be alternating between boastfulness and grovelling apology. It’s an odd mix.

With my old press officer mental gears engaged, I can see exactly why we’re doing it. We have to get our message across and if we don’t say how great we are, no-one else will. At the same time, we need to show we’ve listened and learned, need to show we’ve changed. So we’ve got to apologise for some stuff. All of which is fair enough. I get it.

It’s just that we sound a bit confused. We used to be rubbish. Now we’re great. But, we were right on the big call////;/…………//// s, and this government is useless///////////////////////////////sffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff so give us a chance.

(Sorry, the cat wants to play fetch again and is jumping on the keyboard. Back in a bit)

So what have we done so far to end the failed era of neo-liberalism by earning a second chance?

Well, we’ve agreed what looks like a sensible set of reforms to our party structures. That’s good. Mind you, the details are pretty confusing, and it sounds a bit like kind of backroom deal that vested interests make with each other. I’m sure it’s not though. We wouldn’t moderately rewrite the rulebook in a sensible way and negotiate reasonably with vested interests to reach a mutually satisfactory deal. No, We Rip Up The Rules and Take On The Vests. I read it in the paper.

Then the big news. We’re going to cap variable tuition fees. Now the history of Tuition Fees is interesting. We used to be against, then we were for them for a bit, then we were against again, and now we’re for, but not as much as the other lot are and we’d really prefer something else, if we could make it work, but we’re not sure we can. So this policy is really a sort of downpayment on a graduate tax.

What’s much more interesting is how we’re going to pay for it. We’re going to take on the banks by taxing them more than the Tories would. I suspect this will be rather popular.

However, with the economy on the edge of recession, a desperate hunger for jobs, and demand as visible as a democratically elected member of the SWP, I did wonder what made us decide that the top priority for that rare and beautiful thing – a popular tax increase – was the repayment terms for graduate loans in a decade’s time? We’ve caught a Unicorn in a net, and we’re using it to somewhat modify student debt levels in the medium term.

Now, I’m being unfair. We’re also going to do something about Train prices, and tackle the energy companies head on. We’re going to have that temporary VAT cut to help demand. I’m sure there are other policy announcements coming too. Ed Balls’ speech will surely have one or two in his speech tomorrow. There’ll be lots of interesting stuff to absorb from the fringes, and lots of good ideas being batted around right now.

I’ll be more optimistic and positive later. I promise. The first day of conference is always a bit soundbite and headline and posture, it’s just you notice it more when it’s all you see.

Can I be honest with you, comrades? My obvious querulousness is I because I don’t think we’ve come to terms with the idea we’re not going to be able to promise very much at the next election. I don’t mean we’re making ludicrous, uncosted promises. We’re not (much) and those who erring souls who are don’t have the Ed B seal of approval. That’s all boxed off.

No, I mean in the way we carry ourselves, the way we talk. Viewed from the wrong end of the soundbites and news clips, we talk and brief like we can remake the world with the simple power of our beliefs. Yet we make policy as if we’ll be lucky if we can keep train prices a bit lower.

I suspect the latter is right, so can we please recognise it a bit in our ventures into rhetorical flight? For one thing, I’m petty certain it would suit Ed M right down to the ground.

Oh, one last thing.

Can someone in the Press Office please taser shadow ministers every time they say “Up and Down the country?”.

It’s the only way they’ll learn.

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