Sunday, 21 April 2013


Activists of all Parties are familiar with the need for "duty" ovations.

It is the modern convention of all Party Conferences that the leader gets a standing ovation just for turning up. And that another ovation when they've finished would follow even if, in between, they had addressed the delegates with nothing more than a selection of local names picked at random from the telephone directory.

And all Parties are also familiar with the bizarre requirement that inadequate leaders or inadequate speeches are sometimes felt to require a counter factual hysterical response in the hall.

IDS was never received other than rapturously by the Tory faithful while the utterly mundane performance by Eck in Inverness last month was cheered by the Nationalists as if the new Demosthenese were among them. Or was, at least, so cheered once they realised he'd finally finished.

But, sometimes a speech draws a spontaneous and genuine response.

Lest I am accused of gratuitously insulting the First Minister, anybody who saw his famous "Braveheart" Conference speech  where he finished by adopting the personality of William Wallace (or at least William Wallace as played by Mel Gibson) would not have failed to note that his activists were on their feet before he reached the second syllable of his final word: "Freedum!!!"

And it is not for nothing that Michael Heseltine was described as the man who could always find the clitoris of the Conservative Party.

Johann made such a speech on Saturday.

I was in Inverness for two days and by lunchtime on Saturday I had half written my blog in my head.

"We know what we're against: Independence and the Tories, but we don't yet know what we're for".

And if they were being honest, so would many of those whose freedom of expression is more restricted by collective responsibility than that enjoyed by me, a semi detached blogger with no remaining personal ambition.

All failing opposition Party Conferences are of course obsessed to a degree with the Governing Party. Labour Conferences were obsessed with Thatcher throughout the eighties. It was the one few things that united us. As indeed were Tory and SNP Conferences in Blair's Golden period from 1997 till Iraq. Had he not died so prematurely, I'm sure SNP Conferences would have become obsessed with big Donald as well.

But successful oppositions don't just offer outrage they also offer an alternative to outrage.

And Johann started to do that on Saturday afternoon. The focus might have been on her "Scotland versus Salmond" line but the more telling line was that we should be shaped not by our villains but by our heroes.

And Scottish Labour's heroes are seldom flamboyant figures. John Wheatley; Tom Johnston; Willie Ross; Geoff Shaw and Dick Stewart;  big Donald himself and, dare I still maintain it, Gordon Brown. Seldom given to grandstanding but very much given over to the daily policy and legislative grind that brings about real change in the lives of ordinary working people.

So Johann's response to the Nationalists wasn't rhetorical pyrotechnics. It was practical proposals. On personal care for the elderly; on genuine education for all; on childcare; on land reform; on prioritising child poverty.

And the hall noted that. And it wasn't the personal story at the start; or the (good) one liners on the way that brought the Conference to its feet at the end of Johann's speech. It was the realisation that suddenly we were back to being something more than "not the SNP". That we were already looking beyond 18th September 2014 to 5th May2016. That the ideas whispered on the fringe: on social housing; on local government reform; on modernisation of the health service, were not taking place in a vacuum.

We should not lose sight of the fact that it is a very long way back from the debacle of May 2011 but it was Chairman Mao who observed that the longest journey starts with a single step. At least we've finally started out on the road.

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