“The object of power is power”, as Orwell ‘s character O’Brien explains in Nineteen Eighty Four. For the Big Brother regime “power is not a means; it is an end.”
Every political party must aim for power or question the reason for its existence. The Conservative Party has been extraordinarily successful in this respect over the near-200 years of its existence. Only recently do its leaders seem to be focusing on staying in government for the sake of being there rather than to enact a particular set of policies (with the devastating exception of Liz Truss’ 44 days).
Desire for change
The recent East Midlands Labour Party Conference highlighted one of the key differences between the parties. Here were people of all ages, but with an emphasis on youth, who seemed galvanised by a desire for change, by plans designed to employ power for the benefit of the country rather than for the benefit of party, people engaging with visions as well as leaders. The contrast with the Conservative national conference audience during Therese Coffey’s speech when many were caught on camera dozing off and re-animating only for the final applause, was stark.
This contrast does not in itself guarantee any superiority for Labour policies but does indicate a world of difference in approach. Speakers – and there were some ‘big beasts’ here – managed to pull off the trick of combining a wake-up call with substance by graphically illustrating the real-life effects of Westminster decisions.
Andy Reed, previously MP for Loughborough, explained the importance of the East Midlands to any election. Middle England, he said, had been largely lifted out of poverty in the early 2000s, and Loughborough was a microcosm of the region and country, with rural, urban, high tech, agricultural, rich and poor areas. The last of these had been sliding backwards into greater poverty over recent years.
Everyone, regardless of how they had voted in past, should be listened to with respect; each had their own valid concerns and demonising ‘Tory voters’ was neither fair nor constructive. “The onus falls on Labour to be clear what it was offering”, and this comment set the tone for the conference.
Margaret Beckett MP for Derby South and a previous leader of the party, warned that despite nearly 50 years in Parliament she had never before experienced politics in such a state, “hard to believe or describe”. She believed that with the Truss/Kwarteng “extraordinary” mini-budget making it so unapologetically obvious that they were willing to give to the richest and take from the poorest, the Conservative Party may be truly waking up to what it had become. And voters may be waking up to the fact that political decisions profoundly affect everyday lives; they are not about posturing or popularity or creating conflict but are about who controls and directs common resources to whose benefit.
Dame Margaret lived up to the introduction which she was too modest to accept – “a legend” – by offering a mix of inspiration and realism. The economic inheritance of the next Labour government may be worse than yet known or acknowledged, as was the legacy of debt it acquired in 1997, but it had turned that around before and it could do it again, driving forward growth by making the East Midlands and the UK a leader in green energy.
Jonathan Ashworth MP for Leicester South for the last 11 years and Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, said more about the impact of political decisions on real life: “I have met people refusing fresh food from foodbanks because they can’t afford to run the fridge; pensioners using tea lights to warm their food. These things aren’t happening by accident, they are the result of government choices. But it doesn’t have to be like this, there are options. We don’t have to have 5 million children destitute; we don’t have to have pensioners in poverty. We do have the resources to grow the economy rather than trash it.”
He made the point that there was the money for better choices and policies, the vital question was who controlled and directed that money, and where it came from. As just one example, more funding for the NHS from ‘non-dom’ taxes was part of Labour’s plan.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper picked up this baton stating that properly funded policies will turn the tide of the current false ‘choices’ between higher taxes on the lower paid and cuts in services. She spoke of the damage emanating from Downing Street affecting the entire economy and the false narrative of a ‘new government’ when the prime minister was until recently the Chancellor presiding over the financial decisions of the ‘old government’, and the Home Secretary sacked for undermining security was re-instated after less than a week. “It’s always party before country” but there are better alternatives: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Cooper was in a position to speak authoritatively on the viability of a different economic approach. ”We do have the resources to fund services like childcare and schools, it’s not about lack of money, but about using it effectively.” She gave examples from the Home Affairs brief: in the last 12 years of Conservative government, arrests and crime solution had halved, there were 6,000 fewer police officers, policing standards were being ignored and communities felt less safe. Labour would pay for more officers by streamlining recruitment processes and reduce crime by nipping it in the bud with more support for schools to prevent youth criminalisation.
Her second example was the appalling waste of money in attempting to reduce immigration, “Ramping up rhetoric while massively slowing down processing”. Refugees were neither integrated nor returned to their countries of origin for years, at enormous cost to the public purse as they lived in camps and hotels in limbo. Labour would radically speed up the processing, by cancelling the Rwanda scheme which has already cost hundreds of millions and achieved nothing.
Who do you trust?
The earlier words of the party’s General Secretary David Evans seemed to summarise the mood of the hall: “We are taking on serious issues, issues of life and death, which gives us the drive to win”. Politics is not about “Who you might enjoy having a kebab with, but who you trust to make it”. The time had come to address the cynicism, division and alienation holding the country back, not by haranguing people but by listening and building trust.
The entire event was directed towards creating an achievable manifesto based on listening and developing realistically-funded policies, and it would have been impossible for even a naysayer to ignore how all the speakers and the young session leaders were clearly on top of their brief. No playing to the gallery, just competence, commitment and common sense. It is a ‘tribute’ (if one can call it that!) to the power of populist media, that there is a current narrative of Labour having no policies, even when these have been clearly spelled out. Perhaps this is because the party continues to want to listen to people on the doorstep and via wide ranging consultation, rather than making wild statements without even forewarning their closest colleagues.
Conferences such as this, with a substantial amount of time devoted to open sessions led by the younger wing of the party to gather ideas, experience and concerns, and to advise members how best to canvass views on doorsteps across Britain, should ensure that when the time comes, Labour is in a positive position to take power and use it for the greater good.