By Ian Waller
LABOUR PARTY CON FERENCES must. I always feel, be judged by the amount of harm they do to the party's image. By this. admittedly not very lofty, criterion, last week's affair at Blackpool must be judged a success.
Ministers. and in particular the Prime Minister. restrained themselves from making any damaging commitments; there were no scenes; and the delegates themselves seemed to recognise that a governing party cannot be as irresponsible as a party in Opposition. This in itself is a considerable step forward for the evangelical roots, and the long years in Opposition. have bred an "Opposition" mind attitude in the Labour Party — particularly in the Left wing.
I well remember Dick Crossman arguing some years ago that it was better to be in Opposition with your principles pure than to have them tainted by compromise in office — a view I should hasten to add that he has long since abandoned. But it dies hard in the party. This year, though, I think it finally went.
True, the Conference overwhelmingly defeated the Government's incomes policy; mustered a very large vote against NATO; demanded an end to talks with the rebel regime in Rhodesia and so on.
But everyone knew it would make no difference to the Government's policy. They accepted that the Government was responsible to Parliament and the nation and not the party conference; we have gone a long way since Hugh Gaitskell's "Fight, fight and fight again" speech after he had been defeated by the conference on nuclear disarmament.
What then. one may well ask. is the point of it all? Would not the Cabinet, 1200 delegates and about 500 journalists, all be better off staying at home? There are certainly many in all parties who would like to end the autumn rituals by the seaside, but apart from enabling the party leaders to put their wares on show, and bringing the faithful together, they do I believe, provide a valuable barometer of opinion in the party both for the leaders and the public.
Mr. Wilson recognised this point when, making clear that the Government would not be bound by conference decisions, he also said he accepted them as "a warning."
He was referring. in particular, to the deep sense of iesentment and injustice over the statutory wages policy. It stays — but it is difficult to believe that the government will renew the powers when they expire next year.
"lbe most significant thing to emerge from the conference was, 1 think, the evidence of a major shift to the Right in the general climate of opinion. 'Frue, the militant Left have captured one of the key trade unions, the Engineers with the succession of Mr. Scanlon as leader. And this year we were all geared to a massive Leftwing assault on the National Executive which is the centre of power in the party. "The voice of the rank and file will be heard at last" or so we were told.
In fact it was a total failure. There were no important changes in the elections while the voting figures revealed a sharp fall-off in support for I.eft-wingers. This was particularly the case in the constituency party section. Here there are no massive trade union "block" votes to distort the results either way, but the Left usually have a disproportionate large influence within the individual constituency parties.
Yet three of the most active of the younger generation of Left-wing MPs — Mr. Eric Heifer (Walton, Liverpool) Mr. Stan Orme (Salford West) and Mr. John Mendelson (Pent
stone) not only failed to get elected but had their votes slashed compared with last year.
Mr. Mendelson in many ways is the most interesting failure since he is the best known among the Left cogniscemi, he has lately tried to establish himself as the Left's leader on the backbenches and he is always deeply involved in the foreign policy issues that arouse most emotion among the traditional Left.
It is not easy to find an explanation for this very real change — and the swing away from traditional Socialism was apparent in many speeches too. The Left — who really were licking their wounds at Blackpool — say that the enthusiasm has been knocked out of the militant activities and that they are just contracting out of Labour politics (not a thought that will unduly worry Mr. Wilson); the stuffing has also been knocked out of them by Czechoslovakia; some tried hard to argue that it was ultimately the West's fault. No one, thank goodness. tried to defend Russia's behaviour. But a God has failed them and this has left its mark. Perhaps the truth is — and certainly I got the feeling talking to delegates — that the heart of the Labour movement, decent moderate and loyal, is beginning to assert itself in the constituencies. They have had their backs to the wall for the past year; they are sick of attacks from inside. and above all they want 'heir Government to succeed.
And this, in fact, was what the conference was about: explaining away the errors of the past, reassuring them that it was not as bad as it sometimes looks — and offering them the hope of better times to come.
Mr. Wilson did it perfectly — throwing in for good measure the blood curdling picture of militant Right-wing extremism on the march throughout the world and Britain in particular: "the virus of Powellism" led by the "Right-wing guru from Wolverhampton."
It was a thought calculated not only to bestir the Labour delegates but to stir up the pot at the Conservative Conference and Mr. Wilson was delighted at Mr. Powell's response: "I am the virus that kills socialism" for this is what a large number of rank and file Conservatives believe; but Mr. Powell is not the leader of the Conservative party and will never become it if Mr. Heath has his way. But Mr. Heath must dearly wish that his supporters could regard him and not Mr. Powell as the "virus that kills socialism."
In the last analysis, however, governments stand or fall on their record and not their leader's polemical skill. Mr. Wilson has still to prove his record. All one can say after Blackpool is that his personal position is unchallenged and that his power base in the country is in better heart and more responsible than seemed possible even a month ago.
Ian Waller is the Political Correspondent of the "Sunday Telegraph"