Strange though it might seem, the Labour Party still runs a regular conference each year, attended by trade unionists, leftish councillors, and (mildly) progressive activists.
But this traditional event has been increasingly overshadowd by the gaggle of ministers, hangers on, careerists and commercial lobbyists that populates the “secure zone” that dominates the centre of Brighton, this year’s conference venue.
This year those delegates that still think “reform” means making things better for ordinary people — as opposed to making more opportunities for corporations — made a little more noise than usual. Small bursts of socialism kept popping up in an otherwise resolutely business friendly event.
This commercial edge was echoed in ministers’ keynote speeches, which mimicked the management gobbledygook of the consultants that hang around the conference like flies on muck.
Tony Blair took the lead with his demand that Labour be the “changemakers” — a slogan that could have come straight out of one of those turgid managerial self-help books sold in airports.
Central to Blair’s speech was the idea that debating globalisation was like asking “whether autumn follows summer”. However, the veteran left wing MP Dennis Skinner won a standing ovation for his speech that directly replied to Blair.
“What are we to do about globalisation?” he asked. “We must ward off the excess of market forces. The foundation of the NHS was interference in the market. Pensions, social security, every health and safety regulation is a disruption in the free flow of the market.”
Skinner was given the platform during a session on campaigning. He was offered up as a dose of the old time religion to motivate the rank and file members that Labour still needs to knock on doors and stuff envelopes at election time.
The contrasts between Labour’s new business friends and its left wing past were everywhere in Brighton. I listened to London mayor Ken Livingstone’s conference speech on a TV screen in front of Metronet’s corporate stand. Metronet took over slices of London’s tube system in a privatisation opposed by Livingstone. The company got into the conference by paying a £6,000 fee.
Trade unions founded, funded and nurtured the Labour Party for just over 100 years, as we were constantly reminded from the platform. But today, businesses simply buy their way into conference.
Tesco decided it wanted a “debate” on the green belt. So environment minister Elliott Morley duly joined David North, the firm’s government affairs director, at a conference fringe meeting.
North is already close to the government, having been a private secretary to Blair and senior policy adviser on environmental matters, before opting for life as a Tesco product in 2002.
The British Bankers Association also sponsored meetings with Labour MPs. Its executive director, Joanna Elson, is another convert from Labour to capital. She was formerly a Labour press officer and assistant to Barbara Roche, the ex-minister who lost her London seat in May because of her support for the Iraq war.
Trade union delegates helped overturn several New Labour policies, including a vote against further use of private firms in the NHS. Health secretary Patricia Hewitt announced she would ignore the result, before heading off to a “drinks reception” paid for by Lodestone Patient Care — one of the firms bidding for operations from the NHS.
This was an invitation only event, and mere mortals like myself could not attend. But I was able to catch up with Hewitt’s dismal managerialism at a meeting on “targets in the public sector” — sponsored by Price Waterhouse Coopers.
Hewitt stared with a fixed grin while Jon Sibson, founder of Price Waterhouse Coopers’ PFI team, droned on about the pressing need to ensure that “user satisfaction is part of the metric”.
The Fabian Society was founded to gradually replace capitalism with socialism, but now they are rapidly moving in the opposite direction. Their drinks reception was paid for by Bell Pottinger — a Tory run PR firm whose clients include arms firm BAE Systems, McDonald’s and privatisation group PPP Forum.
However, when it came to social events there was another option. Billy Bragg topped the bill at a loud, lively and mixed anti-fascist gig held outside the security zone.
So look hard enough and you can still find a progressive, even socialist Labour grassroots. But you have to wade through a lot of corporate gloss to find it.