[Reflections on the party political conference season - part two]
I popped along to the Labour fringe meeting partly because I live nearby and partly because Iain Dale had mentioned it on his blog. The debate was called Can Labour Win? The two Labour MPs present claimed - naturellement - that Labour could win, but the '200 days of power' posters hung all around the room hinted at a more defeatist attitude.
Iain Dale aside, the line-up was distinctly off-putting, consisting as it did Caroline Flint and Caroline Lucas - neither of whom would get my vote in a thousand life-times - and that obnoxious heap of lard Ed Balls.
If Ed Balls is the future of the Labour party, they really are in trouble. The man is a perpetual undergraduate, stuck in the 1980s, who does nothing but attack the Tories and knock down straw men. After 12 years in power, he still acts as if he is in opposition which - if the polls are to be believed - he soon will be.
It was a forgettable event at the start of a downbeat conference. Neither Ed Balls here, nor Gordon Brown in the main hall, seemed capable of grasping the fact that it was saving, rather than spending, money that is now the priority. Mumbling rhetoric about 'social justice' and 'equality' is no substitute for an economic plan, even if played well to the Fabian Society's audience.
A refusal to face reality was on display again the following day, when I was in the audience for Victoria Derbyshire's live debate on Radio Five. I seldom listen to Victoria's show (it's nothing personal) but, to give her her due, she is a very capable broadcaster and watching her control a three-hour debate where anything could go wrong made me appreciate the calm head required for live radio.
The show consisted of a stream of Labour politicians being wheeled into the room to be abused by the Sussex public. There were so many that I can't recall them all but I'm fairly sure that Caroline Flint, Charles Clarke, David Blunkett, Neil Kinnock, Tony McNulty, Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell all made appearances. All expressed loyalty to the Prime Minister and all stated that Labour could win the election but, in truth, few put their heart into it. In fact, only Neil Kinnock seemed to have any fight left in him and when he had to rush off during the news (presumably he had a gravy train to catch) he was given a spontaneous round of applause for being, at the least, entertaining.
More interesting than anything the politicians said was the way the show was orchestrated. It is not, of course, as spontaneous and chaotic as it might sound on the radio. Tea and coffee is served for an hour before the show begins, which gives half a dozen BBC staff a chance to go around chatting with their audience. Although casual, the purpose of these little chats is to see whether you follow politics, whether you can string a sentence together and - to put it bluntly - whether you're a weirdo whose going to ruin the show.
Mrs Snowdon and myself must have come across as reasonably sane because we were then seated in the first row, which was handy because it later allowed me to request Tony McNulty's resignation to his face (he was caught up in the expenses scandal).
During the show itself, the same BBC workers who greeted us over hot drinks pace the floor taking whispered questions from the audience. If they think the question is relevant and will take the discussion in the right direction, they put their hand up to attract the attention of the producer who, in turn, attracts the attention of Victoria. This, again, weeds out the loony comments and keeps the show on track. As I recall, only one truly incoherent comment made it onto the air (from one of a
hoard horde of students in the audience) and the glare that Victoria gave the producer afterwards was priceless.
All in all, a decent way to spend a Monday morning but really it was just a warm up for Question Time, of which more in the next post.