Thursday 27 September 2007

Labour's Conference Now Little More Than a Trade Fair.

This article by me appears in today's Guardian Comment is Free and sums up my experience of the Labour Party Conference this year.

Business, as usual
Labour 07: This year's event proves it: the moneylenders really have taken over the temple.

Under the strapline "Our conference can provide an exciting place to do business", there was a revealing pie chart in the Labour party's conference guide that gave a breakdown of who now attends the annual gathering.

It is: 10% elected representatives, 20% media, 30% Labour party delegates and visitors, and - top of the list - 40% from the commercial and corporate sector.

So when Gordon Brown and his ministers received their standing ovations, the largest group clapping was the companies looking forward to doing business with this government.

Now that biblical references are de rigueur in the party, it seemed to many that the moneylenders really had taken over the temple.

The rule changes bounced through the conference this week removing the right of Labour members to determine the party's policies at the conference mean the event is now little more than a trade fair and media platform for speeches from the leader and ministers.

And it takes a remarkable feat of ingratiating contortion to consider Gordon Brown's first leader's speech as setting "a new tone" and offering "the possibility of a different kind of Labour government", as Jon Cruddas and others have claimed.

While warm words of praise were bestowed on the NHS and public servants, outside in the real world we learned that in order to save the budgets of some primary care trusts, Bupa was to vet whether patients should or should not receive the treatment recommended by their consultants. Bupa will be paid from the savings made by preventing operations.

Similarly, at an almost surreal fringe meeting at the conference, we heard from the government's adviser on welfare reform, the obviously suitably qualified venture capitalist David Freud, that a similar principle was to be applied to getting people off benefit and into work. While 40,000 jobs are to be cut at the Department for Work and Pensions, private sector companies are to be given the role of forcing the long-term unemployed into work. The firms will make their profits from the benefits saved.

Meanwhile, despite the declaration of a new social housing programme, behind the scenes immense pressure was being applied to delegates to ensure that what was possibly the last resolution ever to be debated at a Labour party conference actually reversed existing conference policy, which calls for councils to be treated fairly in the distribution of resources for building houses.

On the morning we hear of the children of eastern European migrants being racially abused on our streets, how does Gordon Brown's slogan of "British jobs for British workers" sit with those urging "a more positive message on migration"?

Playing tactical games over the timing of the election also reflects an approach to politics where policies are too often determined for party advantage, and even the stability of the government is risked for the same reason.

Caution suggests current poll leads result more from a combined sense of relief at Blair going and the rejection of an incompetent, passé alternative than they do from a belief in the government being committed to real change. John Major and 1992 come to mind.

The scenes of Buddhist monks in Burma losing their lives in a struggle for democracy are a stark reminder that democratic politics should be about more than developing subtler forms of spin and party game-playing.