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Monday, September 29, 2014

Conference season

There is a scene at the end of George Orwell's Animal Farm where the animals and the humans become indistinguishable. If this article by Carole Cadwalladr is to be believed the political conferences of the main political parties are much the same, clones and out-of-touch with the people they are meant to represent:

There are any number of ways you can hold a conference but our political culture, our long history of parliamentary democracy, has produced a spectacle – common to all parties – that feels like something Disraeli might have come up with after attending a L’Oréal sales conference. Ken Livingstone tells me how it was in the 70s when “conference was a parliament of working-class delegates who every day were casting their votes to create policy”. Not any more.

I watch Chuka Umunna’s hotly anticipated speech and, frankly, I might as well be at the L’Oréal sales conference. He sounds like he’s trying to sell shampoo. I’ve read endless articles on how he’s the next Obama, and then he says: “Conference, if you work hard, you should not have to live in poverty…” Conference? As an indirect object? What? It’s the first of dozens of bizarre verbal constructions I hear that sound like they were coined by the Committee of Bizarre Verbal Constructions some time back in 1938.

And then there’s the press pack, that’s the same too: the lobby journalists and columnists who are something of a force of nature, in the same way that packs of hyena and great white sharks are a force of nature. They can spot a political cock-up – a blunder, a gaffe, a misplaced comma – from a thousand yards, and then work together, tweeting and retweeting and harrying their prey until the moment they bring down a shadow cabinet member like a weakened Thomson’s gazelle. I sit in the press pen for Miliband’s speech, the main event of the week, and it’s like watching a David Attenborough documentary play out in real time. All around, heads are bowed, characters are furiously tapped into iPhones, smart observations are made, retweeted, echoed, repeated, amplified, enlarged. Out there in the Twitterverse, which becomes the blogosphere, which becomes the headlines, which becomes the bulletins on tonight’s TV, Miliband is limping, bleeding, wounded before he’s even taken his rapturous standing ovation.

The best speech I hear in the first two days, or at least the most honest, isn’t made by a politician, it comes from Red Len, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite. “We have seen our political establishment – including, let’s be honest, our own party – have a near-death experience in Scotland,” he tells the audience. “We have seen an elite in a panic. Because the Scottish people played the role in the fairy story, telling the Westminster emperor that it has no clothes!” It gets a massive cheer. And there’s more when he says: “We’ve been told that working-class people don’t vote and we have seen them electrified by political engagement!”

And he finishes to a whopping great standing ovation. Scotland has changed everything. Not just in terms of devolution and what that means – the elephant in the Labour party conference room – but what the tumultuous result means, full stop. If you think that our way of doing politics is outdated, irrelevant, elitist and has nothing to do with you, join the gang. Isn’t that what the 45% of people who voted “Yes” in the Scottish referendum thought? That they just couldn’t stand Westminster a moment longer?

Conferences of course are special events and often resemble a parallel universe, somehow estranged from the real world. On the ground it is a different matter, but ordinary people's perception of the political establishment fits far more with the one in this article. It is worth reading in full if only to understand that.
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