Sunday, 25 September 2011

It's many a mile from here to there

There is a very wise observation that a four day golf tournament can't be won on day one, but it most certainly can be lost.

The same in many ways applies to Party Conferences in the early days of a new Parliamentary Term.

Labour could have a model conference this week. Enlightened and perceptive discussion on the fringe if not in the hall (no Party offers that nowadays, its too dangerous); Great speeches from our major players; a mesmerising address from Ed and a general atmosphere of fraternal bonhomie and common purpose.

And do you know what? It wouldn't matter a jot come the next election. Other than Ed getting elected I can't remember a single thing that happened at last year's Labour Party Conference and I am, how might I put it, more interested in the internal politics of the Labour Party than most people.

But Conferences, even at this distance from the polls can certainly make a major contribution to defeat.

Since I started with a sporting cliche I make no apology for repeating the political cliche that oppositions don't win elections, Governments lose them. That is true but it is equally true that most Governments have the additional advantage that they are  the Government. Other than in the most extreme of circumstances that has at least proved that under their existing stewardship the Country functions on some basis. Accordingly, even when the Country is not functioning very well, seldom are the other side swept into power unless they have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Country that they are capable of doing a better job.

That's why the elections of  1974 and 2010 proved so indecisive and why that of 1992, for us, proved such a disappointment. The Country wanted something better but they were not convinced that was on offer. To that extent, Party Conferences are important. They put the alternative under the spotlight and, if it holds up, invite the electorate to return to it when the time is right.

But a good conference this year counts for nothing if next year's is a disaster. On the other hand, if this year's is a disaster then the danger is that minds are set against paying future attention. That's why the disastrous Conferences of the eighties took so long for Labour to recover from.

Conferences are however important in another less public way. They make the Party rules and the effect of that can have a slow burn for good or ill. The farcical compromise reached on the electoral college is just another fix to put off the eventual decision that the only viable way for any party to elect its leader is by one member one vote. The very, very small toe dipped in the water of registered supporters the start of a long process that will eventually, one day, lead to a Primary system to elect our candidates. The frustrating thing is that both moves are so.......................conservative and the need for something bolder so obvious to everyone except the Party itself.  If fortune favours the brave then it looks like we can look forward to a fair amount of bad luck.

The general public don't pay any attention to such matters but they do to the results they produce. "How did he/she end up as Leader?" they will ask  in time. Or "How could you possibly expect people to vote for........?" in a Constituency context. If the only answer is that this was in accordance with our rules they are unlikely to be mollified. Much more likely they will conclude that if these are your rules then it's no wonder nobody votes for you.

There is however a very imporant and enlightened change likely to go through the Conference this week and that is the rule change which will, at a different Conference in late October, allow the Scottish Party to make its own rules. Unfortunately there is a strong body of opinion that sees this simply as an opportunity for us to decide to have the same rules as the Party in England. It would however be a serious error for that to be what happens.

Sometimes, just sometimes, having a row at a Party Conference, is actually the best thing to do. It was when Kinnock denounced the Militant or Blair announced the revision of Clause 4. Such rows are only justified when the status quo isn't working and  that a row is the only way to show people that some, at least, realise that.

This October, it's time for a row. For the May 2016 Election can't be won in October 2011 but it can certainly be lost.

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