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8 October 2001

History and social democracy start again

Labour Conference 2001 - The PM laid on an inspirational performance in Brighton. The troub

By Jackie Ashley

It was always going to be a time when all good men would come to the aid of the party. Sorry, take that again: when all the party would come to the aid of the Prime Minister. What no one expected was that when the Labour Party rallied around the leader, they might really mean it. Nearly a month on from the allegedly world-changing events of 11 September, the Labour Party conference has been assessing their impact on our own democracy. To my surprise (and the surprise of many delegates) there is a mild optimism.

These are not going to be easy times for the left. But it isn’t all disaster either – at least, not yet. The first thing, and it is an obvious point, is that the power and authority of the state have been confirmed.

Goodbye, all those pundits who told us government and politics did not matter any more. Goodbye, the people who said history had ended. Goodbye, the notion that markets now ruled a world knitted together by the internet and cheap air travel. Goodbye, the gravediggers of the public service.

Today, in the aftermath of the New York massacre, we are looking again to traditional sources of power – those fuddy-duddy sovereign governments – and we yearn for wise political leadership. Public service is back in fashion; the heroes of the hour are not just the armed forces preparing for whatever happens in the Gulf, but the self-sacrificing firefighters and police officers who walked into the jaws of death, never to return.

Those key symbols of what we thought of as the new world order – the internet companies and the airlines – are in chaos. No, I am not saying that the left should rejoice that holiday flights abroad will be more expensive in future. But the social-democratic project depends upon a role for the state and on people keeping some allegiance to the ideas of government, taxes, voting and public service. All this is coming back. It is doing so, however, in the context of a new politics that champions international co-operation and the interconnected world; and that has no truck with the “clash of civilisations” or semi-racist hysteria. Ahead of the conference, there were predictions of a Brighton bloodbath on two counts, both of which failed to materialise. Despite all the hype, the terrorists, thank God, did not find their way to the conference centre or the Metropole Hotel.

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The party, despite deep misgivings over a number of issues, both national and international, let Tony Blair have his day. And what a day it was. His conference speech made even those who previously only spat the name Blair, and through gritted teeth, say that they were proud to applaud. He was ambitious, probably unwisely ambitious in the cold light of day. But he sounded at last like the kind of idealistic foreign- policy leader the party yearns for, and not simply someone who is part of a leaders’ club, cosying up to other powerful men.

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In such a week, it seems almost tasteless to mention party politics; Blair certainly didn’t bother to. But that is a measure of his confidence. The Prime Minister made it clear that he would use his refreshed personal authority to push ahead in many other directions, too – on the euro, most obviously – but also on the public services. Spending ministers think they have his personal support for keeping the flow of new funds going throughout this parliament, and stride forth now with a renewed confidence.

But there is the rub. If politics is revitalised and the government’s room for manoeuvre seems suddenly wider, it is harder to be optimistic about the strength of democracy. The conference lacked any real dissent, although good points were made, notably by Tony Benn, on the need for international law to be respected. Indeed, the conference was altogether a pretty thin affair, and not only in being shorter than usual. Up to a third of the usual numbers expected in Brighton just didn’t bother to turn up at all; only 24 of Scotland’s constituency Labour parties thought it worth sending a delegate.

Those who did make it down to the southern coast spent their time wandering from conference hall to fringe, with even less appetite for the debates than for the curling sandwiches generally served as lure. The unions had been neutered, the demonstrators quite literally washed away by torrential rain, and hovering over Brighton as relentlessly as the storm clouds was the fear that something was about to happen – but no one knew quite what.

Beyond the conference, parliament returned for only the second one-day session since this all started, hardly confirmation of our leaders’ passion for hearing the views of our democratically elected MPs. Perhaps its being recalled at all was a sign of the influence of that staunch parliamentarian, Robin Cook, the new Leader of the House. The Prime Minister seemed more concerned with jumping into his VC10 again and heading off to powwow with other world leaders. The cabinet has proved, in formal terms, almost irrelevant.

And if there really is all-party agreement on the emergency measures that the government intends to bring forward on asylum, a Europe-wide search warrant, the inspection and freezing of funds, and the rest of it, then civil libertarians should be wary. Cross-party consensus in a parliamentary democracy can often result in measures that do not stand the test of time.

So there are things for the left to watch. Even if we can hope for a stronger state and a more europhile administration in the next few years, we have to be on our guard against ministers grabbing new powers that they want for other purposes with the all-embracing, unanswerable excuse of this war against terrorism. Yet Tony Blair, for all that, has not been entirely presidential. Although he has not bothered with formal cabinet meetings, he has repeatedly consulted all senior ministers throughout the crisis.

What’s more, in spite of, or even because of, the conference being truncated, a new dialogue is emerging between the government and the unions. Sure, the compromise reached over public service reform – under which the unions accepted some private sector involvement and the government agreed to put limits on it – was in large part because of the pressure of international events.

But it is also true to say that the unions are no longer viewed as quite such embarrassing, aged aunts as they once were. New channels of communication have opened since 11 September, when Blair was waiting to deliver his speech to the TUC conference as news broke of the terrorist attacks in the United States. The union leaders felt themselves drawn into the tragedy and the government’s response to it: they were the ones who decided to curtail the TUC conference as a mark of respect to the American victims, while the rank-and-file delegates were keen to press ahead.

The prominent union leaders (Bill Morris, Dave Prentis, Roger Lyons, Tony Dubbins and all) have, with the exception of John Edmonds, been happy to avoid a defeat for the party leadership this week.

But their cause has been greatly helped by the growing confidence of a number of ex-trade unionists at the heart of the leadership: Robert Hill, a former official of the National Union of Public Employees, now the Prime Minister’s political secretary; his deputy, Nita Clarke, one of the best-known people on the union/party interface for years; David Triesman, Labour’s new general secretary, also a long-serving official for two lecturers’ unions; and the party’s new chair, Charles Clarke, ex-National Union of Students president and a tireless fixer. All these people understand the union movement and can talk the same language; if there is to be successful reform of the public services, it has to be on those terms.

There was a great deal of talk in Brighton about how we are facing the same kind of threat today as the Labour movement of Attlee and Ernie and Aneurin faced in the 1930s. I think that is overdoing it. But it is certainly true that out of the confusion, the rows over appeasement, and then the trauma of war, a revitalised and progressive politics was born that changed this country for ever, and for the better. In a smaller way, perhaps, that opportunity is knocking once more.