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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Conference clashes kept for another day
The logos of the three main parties
Nyta Mann

Autumn 2001 was the party conference season that never was.

Yes, the seaside gatherings which fire the starting gun for the annual political cycle still officially took place.

And yes, Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats each got to talk to themselves - an essential part of these comings-together of the clans.

But it was all done in highly muted and somewhat unreal form.

This had been the year when the conferences had promised, before 11 September, to come alive again.

We had the promise that good old-fashioned argumentative politics would stomp all over each party's artfully arranged window display.

Left or right for Lib Dems?

For the Lib Dems, who kicked off the season, conference time is one of their very few chances to shine in the spotlight rather than as extras to the government and opposition.

After an election which saw them win more MPs and a bigger vote-share than 1997, all under an electoral system not renowned for favouring third parties, leader Charles Kennedy had expected a week of celebration in Bournemouth.

But then came the terrorist attacks on America, and any triumphalism was ruled out of order.

More usefully for Mr Kennedy, though, they also distracted attention from the outbreak of internal fighting over the raison d'Ítre and future direction of the Lib Dems: do they jump to the right or left?

For some time the party has managed to have it both ways: seen by many Labour voters as defenders of the public services and willing to raise taxes, while on the ground chasing or being chased by the Tories for seats.

Those psephological facts of current political life will have to be squared with the Lib Dems' electoral strategy - which so far has relied on reaping the twin benefits of an unenthusiastically supported government and a deeply disliked opposition.

Labour set for classic clashes

Virtually as soon as the results of Tony Blair's second landslide victory was in, Labour began building up to a week of classic conference-floor clashes.

The prime minister's message during the election campaign that the grand theme of his second term involved giving the private sector a greater role in public services did not cause him much immediate trouble.

But once polling day was out of the way, trade unions, party members and Labour MPs made clear they had no plans to be the pushovers New Labour enjoyed in its first term.

The Brighton party conference was to be the venue for the showdown.

It was also meant to be where Transport & General Workers' Union leader Bill Morris demanded an explanation as to why Labour chiefs had reneged on the government's "review" of the controversial asylum vouchers system - a review which had been part of a deal struck the previous year.

Showdown fizzles out

The general feeling that to cause ructions over domestic politics would somehow indecently distract from grave international events helped put paid to the expected full and frank exchanges of view.

A split over tactics between two of the big unions - Unison and the GMB - ensured that the public-private row set to explode on the south coast instead fizzled damply into compromise.

And Mr Morris ended up issuing a joint statement on asylum with the home secretary, while remitting his troublesome conference motion.

The result: Labour's leadership enjoyed a conference without a single vote going against the platform.

Bad Tory timing

The Conservative Party, traditionally the last to hold their conference, suffered the worst timing. The first US and UK missiles were launched at Afghanistan the night before Mr Duncan Smith opened proceedings in Blackpool.

His conference debut as leader saw him having to break off to return to Westminster for the emergency recall of parliament - and the nation's attention focused far, far away from Tory goings-on in Blackpool.

But anyone looking just a little more closely would also have noticed the complete lack of policy on offer.

They might also have remarked on the fact that at this, the first conference since the Tories' second crushing at the polls, there was little sign of any serious debate of how and why the party had done so badly - or what to do about finding a road to recovery.

Lacklustre speech goes unnoticed

The Tory leader's lacklustre performance for his first big speech in the job would also have attracted more comment had the media not been busier elsewhere.

So too would the fact that despite the mention, in a short passage, of his desire to encourage more women, ethnic minorities and people of "different lifestyles" to feel they had a place in the Tory Party, he had not a single suggestion of how this should be done.

The party had, in contrast, ruled out all-women shortlists for parliamentary selections at the start of the week.

Campaigners within the party seeking to broaden its appeal beyond the core Tory heartlands despaired at their chances of turning the party into a modern, inclusive political organisation.

Westminster's formal return

The parliamentary year resumes formally next week when MPs return to Westminster.

Most of them will have already been back there for the three emergency recalls of the last month.

With bombs still falling on Afghanistan and US-led ground forces apparently on the brink of entry, it may still be some time before politics-as-usual itself returns.

See also:

10 Oct 01 | Politics
08 Oct 01 | Conservatives
02 Oct 01 | Politics
01 Oct 01 | Labour
25 Sep 01 | Politics
27 Sep 01 | Politics
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