It’s the eyes that are the give-away. In the sci-fi comedy Men in Black, you could tell the aliens who had stolen the bodies of earthlings because their eyes always behaved in inhuman ways. Well, the Brownite young turks have similar oracular ataxia – think of the thousand yard stare of Ed Balls, the manic gleam in the eyes David Miliband, or Douglas Alexander’s cross-eyed glaze, which makes the Development Secretary look as if he is too exhausted to see straight.
Everyone has praised Gordon Brown’s conference for its unity, cleverness and presentation. How he has shafted the Tories by stealing their clothes. But there was something alien about this Labour conference, a strange look in its eyes. They behaved a little like the Stepford wives, or some religious sect. Come to think of it, the last time I saw someone looking like David Miliband they were trying to sell me a copy of the Watchtower.
Gordon Brown is in danger of creating a party in his own dysfunctional image – full of eager-beaver acolytes falling over themselves to anticipate the whims of the Great Helmsman. The Stepford ministers seem to have erased all memory of Tony Blair, the leader they cheered to the rafters only twelve months ago. Blair has turned into a non-person, whose name they dare not mention.
It has become a bit of a cartoonist’s cliché to portray Gordon Brown as Stalin, but the party conference seems to want to turn satire into reality by acquiescing in this monolithic style of leadership. Everything about this conference went too far. The egregious platform praise for Brown ; the airbrushing of Blair; the Schrummy rhetoric; the stifling of dissent; the recycled announcements; the cynical moralising; the desperate bid for the Tory vote; even the election speculation has been a tease to far.
I found it all a little scary, not least because of Gordon Brown’s discovery of the Bible. His homilies, parables and references to his father’s sermons. The “moral compass” that Brown has been brandishing at every opportunity, like some holier-than-thou prig who has a hot line to the almighty. I don’t remember Gordon Brown being a dedicated churchgoer – he certainly never admitted to it in his Red Paper days, or when Labour was in opposition. Perhaps he has been a closet Christian all his life, but that makes it all the more cynical, surely, to start parading your faith late in life purely for political purposes.
It’s the same with his Britishness. There were eighty one references to the “B” – word in Brown’s speech. He was using techniques of repetition drawn from American advertising, but it sounded neurotic, insincere, protesting too much. Then there was the ham-fisted celebration of John Smeaton, have-a-go hero of Glasgow airport. It was all so clunkingly, transparently manipulative. As Brown got up to speak, the colour of the conference stage backdrop changed from red to Tory blue to make sure TV viewers got the message.
I accept that Brown is a master politician at the top of his game, and all that. But is it necessary to bid so shamelessly for the Tory vote; to borrow Michael Howard’s “dog-whistle” – the practice of using ambiguous phrases phrases to communicate with the baser prejudices of Tory followers – and then blow it harder than even the former Tory leader dared in 2005? Howard never called for ‘British jobs for British workers”. Nor did he promise to deport immigrants selling drugs and firearms, making the dog-whistle elision of foreigners and crime.
Brown’s slogan “Strength to Change Britain” was pure Thatcher, and he had of course set the scene for his first conference as Labour leader by taking tea with Margaret. Like Thatcher, Brown is trying to appeal to the sections of the lower middle classes who like a strong leader who’ll stand up for Britain and do something about immigration. But does he need to be so blatant about it?. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that winning praise from Norman Tebbit is something a Labour leader should be proud of.
Of course, I can see what he is doing politically: trying to force the Tories to move further to the right by rhetorically colonising much of their ground on law and order, the family, immigration. The idea is that Cameron will now be under such pressure from his own people to counter this exercise in Labour cross-dressing, that he’ll be forced to take ever more extreme positions. Then again, he may not.
But a bigger question is this: what is all this spin doing to his own Labour Party? Stuffing all this Tory nonsense down its throat. Isn’t Brown in danger of dragging it to a position which is alien to Labour’s own roots and values? Brown’s yes-ministers have been trying to anticipate his every ideological move, eager to show their willingness to abase themselves. Thus we had Jack Straw ludicrously praising himself for being a “have-a-go hero” and calling for the law to be changed so that citizens have less risk of prosecution for attacking criminals. Only a couple of years ago, he was bitterly opposing Conservatives MPs for praising “have-a-go hero” vigilante, Tony Martin, who killed a burglar with a shot gun. Brown’s people may be delighted at the Police Federation, no less, are now criticising Labour ministers for being too right wing, but again I don’t think it’s something Labour should be proud of.
Nor should they be proud of the way conference has been emasculated. A couple of years ago we all attacked Tony Blair’s thought police for ejecting octogenarian Walter Wolfgang from the conference for heckling the foreign secretary during a debate on Iraq. Well, under Brown, there was no risk of that happening because there was no debate on Iraq, or any other issue of the moment, like private equity, low pay, immigration, Europe. Under the new conference rules debates of substance have been replaced by sycophantic interviews by television celebrities.
The abolition of debates and of votes may have made Labour appear more united, but it is the unity of the graveyard, because the annual conference is now dead as far as real politics is concerned. I don’t know how the broadcasting organisations can justify their coverage of this vacuous rubbish. The lights are going out all over British politics and not just because Hilary Benn is phasing out energy inefficient light-bulbs.
This is spin as we have never seen it before. If there is any doubt now about who was the true heart and soul of New Labour, it should be clear from this conference. Brown is a virtuoso of the dark arts of media manipulation and focus group politics. I just hope that, beneath it all, Brown still knows who he is, what he really stands for beneath all the triangulated Conservatism. After this week, I certainly don’t.