A Spectator's Notebook
Unlike the Labour Party the Tories are not normally riven by doctrinal controversy. But in the last couple of years the party has nonetheless been enjoying the heady — and somewhat dubious — delights of personal and ideological disputation; and never more than at Blackpool this week. Proof of the division is evident at the upcoming fringe meetings: the new Tory Reform Group is making its first conference appearance. The rightwing Selsdon Group has Pamphlet, arguing for denationalisation, but It is still shamefully, debarred from a stall in the Winter Gardens. The Bow Group is smugly Pcoclaiming that it embraces all wings of the Party, even though it has largely been taken over by the right. But the curious facts of division go beyond fringe meetings, and manifests itself much higher in the ranks of the Party. Mr Ian Gilniour will be attending the Tory Reform Group's launching, but the leadership has decided that Lord Hai!sham, and not he, will speak from the platform on that great old conference favourite, law and order. The downgrading of Mr Gilmour is said not so much to be a mark of Mrs Thatcher's disfavour, as a feeling on his own part that he could not support the kind of policy towards which she leans. What that is will become evident only When Lord Hai!sham has spoken: but it seems likely that, though he will not advocate capital Punishment, even for terrorists, he will support Sir Robert Mark in calling for reforms in the rules of evidence, and particularly those restricting police investigation. Conservative differences over policy and philosophy do, you see, affect matters other than the economy.
Looking back to last week in Blackpool, an increasingly irritating feature of Labour Party conferences in recent years has been the introduction of the standing ovation for senior members of the platform. These, normally less than spontaneous, spasms have little or nothing to do with the quality or content of the sPeeches they celebrate. It may even be that they are a complicated expression of popularity, less easily marked in elections to the NEC by the operation of the block vote. Some observers actually measure and compare the length and intensity of these vulgar displays and presumably draw conclusions from their researches.
It certainly is noticeable that ovations accorded to right wing speakers are generally initiated from the platform, with the floor following the lead: the reverse order operates for left wingers. For what it is worth I would measure Wedgwood Benn's ovation as beating Michael Foot's by a short head, with both of them a couple of lengths in front of the rest.
Foot and mouth
Speaking of Michael Foot, (and who is not these days?) it is a matter of some interest that his steady progress to the right has not been accompanied by any great improvement in the content of his speeches. His bravura performance last Monday, much commended by some, was singularly empty. His theme, hedged in by quotations from Conrad to "Steer into the storm Captain" could not conceal, from all but the very innocent and very stupid, the fact that "The red flame of socialist courage" is to be kept burning by a severe cut in employment and real wages for a sizeable chunk of Labour voters. One noted cynic was heard to observe that next year Mr Foot will perhaps explain how socialism will be ensured by a swinging cut in unemployment benefit.
Another distressing feature of the Labour conference has been the decline in the number ot parties thrown by trade unions. The trend, it seems is now moving towards select dinners with a guest list restricted to cabinet ministers and TUC bigwigs. This restrictive practice hits hardest at journalists who are discovering long blank evenings in which they have to buy their own beer.
Fortunately Clive Jenkins, that bon viveur, raconteur and all round star turn, and his union ASTMS, still keep the old tradition alive. Clive's party this year fully lived up to its reputation for generous dispensing of booze and a liberal attitude to gatecrashers. Here it was that we met Mr Heifer, fulminating against the tenor of Mr Foot's speech and vowing never in future to mute his criticism through considerations of past friendship. Here too we met Mrs Castle dispensing gracious smiles and equating Mr Foot's dilemma with the workers to Lenin's introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1922. Finding her thus in a mood for historical analogy we recommended Mr George Dangerfield's classic, The Strange Death of Liberal England, a work that describes the pre-1914 demise of Liberalism in a way which points to similar problems for the Labour Party. Mrs Castle, grateful for the tip, whistled up her Man Friday, Jack Straw — late of the National Union of Students — and instructed him to make a note of the volume. We trust that both find it instructive reading.
Attending the sessions of the conference was the amiable Lord Raglan together with his charming wife, Alice. Lord Raglan, a hereditary, but nevertheless Labour, peer, is a farmer, chairman of a new town and frequent attender at the debates in the House of Lords. During one such attendance he felt called upon to make a speech. During this discourse a more than usually somnolent peer awoke and asked who was speaking. On being informed that it was in fact Lord Raglan, he sprang from his seat and approached the attendant saying: "There is a fellow in there speaking who killed his nanny." When the worried lord was eventually soothed back to slumber, Lord Raglan was informed of the incident, With a wit, that suggests an improvement in the family since the Crimean war, he said, "Right war wrong peer."
If the Blatkpool social round is somewhat restricted of late, the same cannot be said of the proliferation of 'fringe' meetings that seem to occupy all the waking hours between regular sessions of the conference. From Sunday to Thursday a grand total of 60 such events took place. It is fortunate for the obsessed meeting goer that some of them are held simultaneously. For all that the speakers are usually famous and distinguished ornaments of the Labour movement, attendances are often small. The largest of course is the Tribune Rally, which this year was made memorable by Mr Jones's platform shouting match with Mr Mikardo.
Less well attended than the Tribune meeting was an earlier gathering under the auspices of the Social Democratic Alliance. It was here that Mr Reginald Prentice sought a platform from which to abuse his ' Newham North East tormentors and several of his government colleagues. I noted that press reports had it as a "stormy" meeting. As with so much reporting, this was less than accurate. While it is true that there were one or two ruderies tossed in Mr Prentice's direction, the general atmosphere was of good humoured mirth, largely at Mr Prentice's expense. Prentice is not one of our great orators. He is ponderous, rather pompous and, although provocative, does not think quickly enough to deal effectively with hecklers. At one stage in his speech he started a sentence: 'I discussed . . .' followed by a long and inappropriate pause. In this space and before he. could enlighten us as to what he had discussed with whom, some wag in the audience shouted: 'You disgust me too'. Mr Wilson would have had a reply ready for that. Prentice had none except a deeper reddening of his already crimson cheeks.
Mr Prentice also had some difficulty in explaining how he could claim his selection as an MP by a small unrepresentative body as a reflection of good taste and political acumen and complain bitterly when a similarly small and unrepresentative body decided to throw him out. His fumbling of this caused one fellow in the audience to call him a 'poltroon', a splendid term of abuse I had never thought to hear in public.