Declaration: I’m not at Labour conference because I am writing my next book and have other CapX stuff to do too. On one level, I’m sorry. I love seeing old friends at a good Labour conference and apart from the years when New Labour was at its ultimate height, and they were insufferable, there tends to be less smugness at a Labour gathering than there is when the Tories get together. This is also, we keep hearing, the most amazing conference ever with lots of “debate” (the Corbynite left love a mass debate, it’s all about the debate, because it allows them to put off the moment when they have to convince the voters that their outlandish schemes should be tried for real.)
There is a big advantage to not being there however. I am not inside the conference zone bubble and I get to watch some of it on television.
Can I humbly point out to journalist friends there that it all looks completely mad? Perhaps it seems mad inside, but it is being treated as though it is a normal event, because the broadcasters are doing their job (they have to) and just covering it, when they obviously want to turn to the camera and make cuckoo noises while flapping their arms like a chicken.
Labour is a party that had the most enormous car crash in May. It got smashed to bits. The electorate in England (and Scotland) rejected a moderately left-wing leader and here’s Labour back with a proper extremist for another go. It is the political equivalent of that old British approach to foreign languages abroad. Spanish man in the street can’t understand you? Say it louder and much more slowly: “Where… is… the… bus station? I said: where… is… the… bus station?”
In the midst of the weirdness, one of the saddest sights of all is seeing otherwise nice, sensible people in Brighton parrot the Corbynite lines to take (oh yes, the purist Corbynites are now hot on spin, hilarious isn’t it?) as though it is all going to be okay, when really it isn’t. In interviews, members of the shadow cabinet look as though they are featuring in hostage videos.
I tuned into Newsnight last night and the team had put together a well-informed package, but something was wrong. There was a long interview with John McDonnell, that terrible man who is now Shadow Chancellor. And then a discussion in which Zoe Williams of the Guardian explained her Corbynite theories on economics. The Bank of England is a magic money-tree and if you want money you just print more of it, she said. There seemed to be no sense that money creation, and credit for that matter, comes with risks attached. If not why wouldn’t you just print as much as you want and spend it on giving away free stuff? Inflation, perhaps? Weimar ring any bells? The former Labour advisor John McTernan sitting alongside Zoe made a face that summed up my reaction at home perfectly.
It was a bizarre discussion, in which the assumption seemed to be that that thing in May – the bit where the Tories won an overall majority – had never happened. The swing voters in Nuneaton who backed Cameron were just waiting for someone more authentically of the hard left to come along. Of course they were.
Incidentally, the consensus in Brighton seemed to be that Marxist McDonnell had cleverly toned it down for his speech, the shadow chancellor’s Gordon Brown memorial address. Look how humble he is, tweeted people in Brighton.
That wasn’t how it looked outside. McDonnell put on a performance of supreme arrogance, announcing his plans as though he is some great statesman.
The thought that formed when I saw the highlights was: Who the hell do you think you are? Did I miss the bit when you earned the country’s trust before you start telling us what’s going to be happening?
Today it is Corbyn’s turn. The headlines are better for him and the mood radiating from Brighton is positive. There have been no punishment beatings administered to the moderates. Corbyn is learning to use an autocue and the sun is shining.
The Tories will be most delighted of all. Their nightmare was Labour conference being a failure or a shambles that shortened Corbyn’s political lifespan. They want him to stay, because he is on course for an even bigger smash with the English electorate, and the Labour tribe is in denial about what lies ahead. For the Tories it couldn’t be going any better.