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Tristram Hunt's diary: where to find hope at Labour conference

24 September 2016

9:00 AM

24 September 2016

9:00 AM

‘Are you here to seek political asylum?’ asked a clever young student after my lecture at the National University of Singapore. It has certainly not been a great start to the political year: the Boundary Commission abolished my constituency and Jeremy Corbyn’s office declared me a ‘non-person’ by placing me on a list of 13 undesirable MPs deemed to have insulted the Dear Leader. In many ways, Singapore felt a good place to be. Here the role of the Workers’ party is not really to challenge the ruling People’s Action party for power: they play the part of perpetual opposition. Which is eerily close to where Labour is heading.

The ‘Liverpool of the East’ was the colonial nickname for Singapore — partly for its shipping economy, but also for its Edwardian waterfront architecture. The real, true Liverpool is the setting for next week’s Labour party conference. Trepidation surrounds this year’s gathering — what with memories of Derek Hatton and the Militant Tendency reignited, with local parties in Wallasey and Riverside being infiltrated by far-left activists, and with Unite’s Burg Hohenwerfen-like regional headquarters overlooking it all. But it is a mistake to think of Liverpool’s politics in such narrow terms — this was also a city of Orange Order Toryism for large parts of the 20th century. I am looking forward to an outbreak of pluralism.

In the happy old days of Blairite hegemony, the Tribune rally provided the dissent and dark humour (not least from the much-missed Tony Banks). Now, under Corbyn, it is the Sunday evening Progress rally where the capitalist running dogs — that is, moderate Labour MPs — gather to offer a different perspective. If the event is not dispersed as an ‘illegal gathering’ by the National Executive Committee, we will dig deep into our dissenting tradition, for we centrists are now embarking on our own pilgrim’s progress (or Long March). And perhaps we should turn to Corbyn’s old mentor, Tony Benn, in such circumstances: ‘Dare to be a Daniel’ was always his inspiration.

Liverpool is lovely, but I miss Blackpool. I miss the windswept walks between the Winter Gardens and the conference hotels; bars full of smoking, drinking right-wing union bosses; Michael Meacher swimming in the sea; the heat of the B&Bs; escaping to Morecambe Bay. Perhaps I just miss that whiff of possibility and power which used to surround Labour party conference, before we became the political wing of the Stop the War Coalition.

But Liverpool — along with Manchester, Bristol, London and maybe Birmingham — offers hope for the centre-left. Mayors Sadiq Khan and Marvin Rees, and I hope Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Sion Simon, will show what Labour can achieve. With city bosses so much more popular than central government, these mayors should exemplify social democratic politics. But I still don’t understand why the government won’t devolve education to the city regions. That would be far more radical than Theresa May’s grammar-school proposals.

The level of Tory scepticism which greeted Justine Greening’s grammar-school announcement was remarkable. But that is nothing compared to the confusion and contradiction surrounding Brexit policy. ‘If only we had a Robin Cook at the dispatch box,’ was the lament of one colleague, ‘we would be taking this government apart.’ Conference might help by reviving shadow cabinet elections. It is a means for some MPs to return to work for Corbyn with honour, just shy of having a brass band to welcome them back. If the PLP are defeated miners, that probably makes shadow chancellor John McDonnell the pugnacious Coal Board boss Ian MacGregor. Which I can see he would enjoy.

For those saintly constituency Labour party delegates who sit through the debates, emergency motions, card votes, compositing, fringe meetings, hustings and obligatory foreign leader speech (surely this year Nicolás Maduro?), I recommend they take comfort in John Bew’s new biography of Clement Attlee. Not only does he get Clem and his remarkable, stoical, ethical persona, but Bew also provides a brilliant account of Attlee’s civic socialism. Best of all are the anecdotes. I particularly like the story of the self-aggrandising Richard Crossman giving Attlee a lengthy monologue on post-war German reconstruction policy. To which Attlee quietly responded, ‘I saw your mother last week. She is looking very well.’ It is a deep love for our party’s history, statesmen, legends, myths and ritual which means we moderates are not going to be seeking asylum, in Singapore or elsewhere, anytime soon.

James Forsyth and Nick Cohen discuss the Labour’s indestructibles on the Spectator podcast

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke Central; his books include Ten Cities that Made an Empire.

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