A conference without fireworks – and this is a good thing

Luke Akehurst

Usually I would be writing a column at about this point, a week before Labour’s Annual Conference, setting out the policy and rule change dividing lines and points of conflict within the Party, the manoeuvres by its rival leaders and internal currents, the great stormy debates or fringe-meeting rants to be anticipated. All of this was raw meat for political carnivores and the vultures of the media.

For decades, conference witnessed intense battles between the Labour left and right, over policies issues like nationalisation and nuclear disarmament, and over rule changes designed to change the balance of power between unions, CLPs, leader and PLP. First the pendulum would swing to the left through disillusion with the experience of government, then it would swing back to the right as the necessity of winning a General Election sunk in. Latterly, from 1997 to 2007 we endured Annual Conference as the stage for a psycho-drama, the conflict between Tony and Gordon, with plotting in the bars that would rise to a crescendo with the reaction to Gordon’s speech on the Monday, followed by a reaction in Tony’s favour, when, almost inevitably he pulled a rabbit out of the hat with his own speech on the Tuesday.

This year I cannot think of a serious fight that will happen at conference. On policy there are different views but I don’t anticipate acrimony. The doubts about Ed’s leadership of 2011 have dissipated after a year of solid progress and a firm poll lead. The rule changes of Refounding Labour were mainly agreed last year and there is a broad consensus in favour of the further changes around making policy making more inclusive and transparent to be signed off.

The drama is at the other parties’ conferences. Clegg vs Cable. Cameron vs Johnson. Tory vs Lib Dem.

Our gathering will be comparatively worthy, workmanlike and focussed on the positives and what unites us, not on what divides us. This might not be exciting, it might not have the politics as gladiatorial combat feel that the TV cameras would like, but it is where we need to be after two years in opposition.

Ed Miliband’s inclusive and unifying style of leadership has meant Labour has a level of internal conflict so low as to be unheard of in the party’s history. We don’t all agree on everything but where we do disagree we are generally doing it in a comradely way, and our focus is on fighting the Coalition not fighting each other.

This isn’t how Labour normally behaves when it loses an election. Normally we form a circular firing squad and turn in on ourselves, blaming our leaders for losing the election and for the disappointments and compromises of power, and seeking to weaken their constitutional position and tie their hands on policy so they can’t disappoint us again.

This time ordinary members and our leaders have analysed our defeat in a sober way and started focusing on how to win back power after five years, not 13 or 18.

Partly this is about Labour having learned the lessons of the past, but it is also about us having done what history has shown to be the right thing in trying to reflate the economy after the financial crash, so that members don’t feel betrayed by the core policies of our Government’s final years in office.

We are just 29 months on from a big electoral defeat. But we are back in business with a lead of up to 15% in the polls.

If you want to know what Annual Conference used to look like when we weren’t as worthy, dull, level-headed and serious about winning back power, you can watch the conferences from 17 and 29 months after the last time we lost power in 1979. Go on Youtube and search for the BBC documentary called “The Wilderness Years”. The 1980 and 1981 conferences form the backdrop to the early part of the story. You watch people shouting to be heard, levelling abuse at each other, barracking and heckling, blaming MPs and Jim Callaghan for everything that had happened. Conference was used as the vehicle to drive through a series of rule changes that were about a vicious struggle for power inside the Party, not about how it could win power on the country; and a series of policy changes which were about marching Labour sharply away from voters’ views, not towards them. By the time of the 1981 conference, the point in time we are now at after 2010 as we were then after 1979, the SDP split had already happened, as had the divisive Benn vs Healey Deputy Leadership contest. Conference was about internal warfare within the party, played out on live TV. It helped contribute to a 1983 General Election result which saw us lose 60 seats and nearly come third, despite the party being mired in recession.

There are a few people who have tried to repeat the pattern of the past. The attempt to start a rulebook fight over Progress was one effort. The ASLEF motion about this will not be discussed this year but is ticking away for 2013, with a year to defuse it. My sense of the mood in CLPs is that people are not interested in this kind of internal warfare. They want to take the fight to the Tories and Lib Dems, not to organisations or people in our own ranks. And others have tried to paint a national narrative picture about the politics of parliamentary selections, when the only pattern discernible in the approximately three dozen marginal seats to select so far is that CLPs pick candidates not on their ideology or faction but on who are likely to be most electorally attractive and who are proven campaigners who are serious about the work needed to win back lost seats.

Some may feel nostalgic for the metaphorical blood on the carpet of conferences of yesteryear.

Me, I’ll settle for the less exciting week in Manchester I’m expecting, if it adds to, not detracts from, our chances of gaining power and making the current mob a one term government.

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