Honesty is the best policy

22 Sep 06
JACKIE ASHLEY | Manchester 2006: three very different Labour conferences are possible.

Manchester 2006: three very different Labour conferences are possible.

The first is the ‘hack’s delight’. Chancellor Gordon Brown lays claim to the leadership on Monday, with coded attacks on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s record. He wins a rapturous response from the hall, and it’s clear that Blair’s time is up.

Another Cabinet minister says it’s time for Blair to go sooner rather than later. The next day Blair responds. It’s his farewell speech and the conference comes over all

misty-eyed. He has, after all, won the party three election victories. He heaps praise on Alan Johnson, David Miliband, John Reid — everyone, in fact, except Brown.

Late at night, in the hotel bars, Number 10 apparatchiks pour poison into the ears of Sid Slob from the Daily News. Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers silkily suggest that they have yet more evidence of Brown’s character flaws, which make him an unsuitable prime minister. Brown’s lieutenants snipe noisily from the sidelines about Blair and the Blairites; everyone is taking sides and character assassination is the name of the game. The headlines scream of war, meltdown, a party split asunder.

The second Labour conference we shall call the ‘spin doctor’s dream’. Even as I write, it is being planned by those at the centre of power. Brown has been told that a conciliatory speech on his part will result in some warm words from Blair in return. He’ll wonder whether or not to believe the promise. After all, he has been let down before.

But he’s desperate to restore party unity. So he pays tribute to his ‘friend Tony’. Blair rises and applauds enthusiastically at the end of Brown’s speech; Brown sits and simpers through Blair’s, followed by an awkward attempt at a friendly embrace. Both men order their supporters to button it, and the only dissent comes from the far Left.

There is no talk of splits and civil war, only a bland display of unity. The ‘stable and orderly transition’ is back on track, but everyone is talking of a phoney stitch-up.

The third conference is the one the party should strive for. It is the ‘honest Labour conference’. No one pretends there haven’t been rows; no one denies there are differences. But instead of personal abuse, there are political debates.

All possible candidates for the deputy leadership declare themselves — why pretend that there isn’t going to be a contest soon, when everyone knows that John Prescott will step down as deputy PM the minute that Blair goes?

The potential rivals for Prescott’s job have different qualities and competing visions of Labour’s future. Peter Hain has endlessly called for the party to be more involved in policy-making; Harriet Harman rightly suggests that there needs to be a public debate on foreign policy, instead of leaving it to Number 10 and the mandarins to decide Britain’s role in the world.

John Cruddas thinks deputy leaders should concern themselves with the party, rather than trying

to be deputy prime minister. Alan Johnson wants tackling social exclusion as the top priority. Jack Straw, Tessa Jowell and anyone

else who fancies their chances should put their wares on display, too. Then, as the Tories did last year, the party can decide which of the candidates is the best.

At the end of the Conservative ‘beauty contest’, the party was stronger, not weaker. Candidates’ views had been explored, their communication skills tested, and the most impressive man won. Party members left Blackpool feeling that they had been given a choice, and the public were at least aware of who the different candidates were.

It might not be so easy when it comes to Labour’s leadership contest, because the ‘stop Gordon’ candidate has not yet emerged. But whether it’s John Reid or one of the Alans — Johnson or Milburn — it’s perfectly clear that there are policy differences between varying elements within the party.

While Brown talks of ‘limits to the market’, Milburn talks of ‘limits to the role of centralised states’. And it’s not just a case of the Brownites versus the anti-Brownites.

Nuclear power splits the party down the middle, as does Europe, as does the question of how far governments can enforce environmentally friendly behaviour. But why not have open debates on these key issues without pretending that everyone agrees?

The real challenge for Labour in Manchester next week is not simply to get through the event without a series of disastrous headlines. Party leaders and their would-be replacements have to stop thinking in such a short-term way.

Only if the party is seen to have real debates will it have any chance of winning the next election — and it’s that election, not the conference on display next week, that really matters.

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