Friday, 2 October 2009

2 October 2009

You will be pleased to hear, I hope, that I have safely returned from The Other Side.

I refer, of course, to the Land Beyond the Ring of Steel, the Land of the Labour Party Conference. It is a Strange and Peculiar Land where Politics is All.

Outside, the Sun shone and the Sea glistened. But inside, the Select Few were filled with Foreboding: their Mood was Dark and the Clouds were Gathering. (Enough capital letters, thank you. Ed.)

It’s been a strange few days. For one brief moment – after a gloriously over-the-top, end-of-pier performance by Peter Mandelson – it looked as if the conference delegates might have been ready to start smiling again. But Gordon Brown’s speech on Tuesday didn’t seem to deliver the goods – and then The Sun (the newspaper, not the bright yellow thing in the sky) went and ruined everything by announcing in that under-stated way it has: Labour’s Lost It.

By May of next year, the expected date of the election, Labour will have been in power for 13 years. By British political standards, that’s a very long time. With only one exception – the Conservatives between 1979 and 1997 – you’d have to go back to the days of Lord Liverpool and the Duke of Wellington (1812-1830) to find a single party remaining in power for longer. (The Tories also lasted for 13 years between 1951 and 1964.)

So it wouldn’t exactly be surprising if voters decide next year that Labour’s time is up. I wouldn’t expect the party to accept that publicly, but maybe it helps to explain the slight dream-like air of unreality in the Brighton Conference Centre.

I went round asking delegates how they would describe their mood. Nearly all of them insisted bravely that they were ready for a fight and in good heart. They said they have a “good story to tell” – the story of accomplishments that Gordon Brown rattled off at break-neck speed at the start of his speech on Tuesday.

The winter fuel allowance, national minimum wage, Sure Start, civil partnerships, shorter NHS waiting times, less crime, better school exam results … how can voters not be grateful for all that?

But they know the answer, of course. First, voters never say Thank You – not even to Winston Churchill at the end of the Second World War (which Mr Brown is reported to spend a lot of time brooding about). And second, after a bruising recession, with rising unemployment, and a Prime Minister who has claimed for more than a decade that he was uniquely able to steer an economy and abolish “boom and bust”, well, gratitude is in short supply.

Two more thoughts: Labour is still in thrall to the US Democratic Party (at least when it wins elections). The original New Labour project owed a huge debt to Bill Clinton’s New Democrats – and when I saw Sarah Brown do her Michelle Obama thing (“he’s messy and noisy” – Sarah B; “he doesn’t put his dirty socks in the laundry or put the butter away after breakfast” – Michelle O), it was clear that nothing has changed.

And finally, still in transatlantic compare and contrast mode, it seems you do need to be an actor these days to be a successful political leader: Reagan and Clinton were, and Obama is; Thatcher and Blair were, Brown … well, he isn’t.

It wasn’t a disastrous conference for Labour, and I suspect most delegates did feel a bit better at the end of it than at the beginning. But was it the beginning of a long fight-back to electoral victory?

What do you think?

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