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Is it an accident that John Major, John Smith and Paddy Ashdown all turned in such lifeless performances at their party conferences this year? Sharon Clarke examines why parliamentary politics is in such a torpor in the nineties

Politics without policies

The 1992 party conference season will probably be remembered for the eminently forgettable character of its big speeches.

When Paddy Ashdown gave his leader's address to the Liberal Democrats' conference in Harrogate, it was widely acclaimed as the dullest address in years. Then John Smith topped it in Blackpool with his first conference speech as Labour Party leader, a monotonic drone which almost made you pine for Neil Kinnock's manic alliteration. Smith was only saved from winning the media award for the worst speech of the week by the intervention of his deputy, Margaret Beckett, who loyally threw herself in front of the press pack with a platform address that really did put Labour delegates to sleep.

Sank to occasion

Finally came the Tory conference in Brighton, which was marked by two terrible keynote speeches. First chancellor Norman Lamont proved that his oratorical skills are every bit the equal of his economic management techniques. Then prime minister John Major, who had been billed as 'preparing for the speech of his life', sank to the occasion in style.

Even with the aid of a hi-tech sound system, Major's voice seemed to be straining to make itself heard above the rustling of paper hats in the audience. When he made his dismal 'joke' about Tarzan's loincloth, Michael Heseltine cannot have been the only Tory wishing that Major would shut up and sit down.

Many media commentators have noted the generally lacklustre performances by the three party leaders and their lieutenants during the conference season. But few seem to have got to grips with why so many apparent dullards are so prominent in public life at the same time. Some have suggested that we are simply stuck with a generation of poor politicians, the product of some sort of inferior stock line which might be improved with an injection of new blood.

Far be it from this magazine to leap to the defence of Major, Lamont, Smith, Beckett or Ashdown; no doubt each of them is just about as exciting as he or she appears. Scan the parliamentary backbenches as closely as you like, however, and you will not find any brilliant young things who look capable of shaking up the political scene. Indeed the young politicians seem like bad caricatures of their seniors. Clearly, there is something more going on here than just an accidental convergence of mediocre personalities.

Nothing to say

The real reason for the striking lack of excitement in the party leaders' speeches had little to do with their personality defects. The simple fact is that none of them said anything interesting because none of their parties has anything to say. Over three weeks of debate and discussion during the conference season, nobody was able to put forward a single policy of substance.

The lack of ideas, the crisis of policy, was clearest in relation to the discussion of the British economy. Not just the Tories, but Labour and the Lib-Dems too had centred their economic strategy on continued membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). This was not a policy so much as a case of doing nothing. When the pound's collapse forced the government to pull out of the ERM, none of them had anything to put in its place.

Opposition politicians and commentators were obviously right to point out that Lamont's conference speech said nothing about how he intended to revive the British economy. What was less clear, however, was what they wanted him to say. None of them had a solution to offer to the slump either - apart from the popular demand to slash interest rates. And that, as Major rightly points out, has singularly failed to revive the US economy.

Out of control

The problem is that there are no policy solutions to a slump which, as argued elsewhere in this issue of Living Marxism, originates in the very nature of the capitalist economy. This problem is particularly acute in a decrepit capitalist economy such as Britain, buffeted by movements in the world market.

When the system is so far out of control, no British government minister could afford to try to formulate a firm economic policy. Endorsing a clear policy in one direction would immediately raise problems elsewhere. So, for example, slashing interest rates would further undermine the pound on the foreign exchange markets, while raising interest rates in a bid to defend sterling would increase recessionary pressures at home. In these circumstances, the lack of policies and ideas accurately reflects, not just the emptiness of Lamont's head, but the virtual paralysis of the entire British establishment.

Down the M-way toilet

The exhaustion of policies in relation to the economy makes itself felt throughout the so-called programmes of the major parties. Major's speech-writers could only come up with New Age travellers and motorway toilets as targets for rhetorical attack in Brighton. In these post-Cold War times it seems that the Tories cannot even invent credible public enemies against which to launch a negative crusade, never mind developing positive policies.

With no policies to campaign on, politicians are left thrashing around for something, anything, to latch on to. For various reasons, Europe has become just such an issue in British politics. Getting hot under the collar about Europe has become a substitute for talking about the pressing problems of the slump. The Euro-row within the British parties is largely a smokescreen concealing their lack of solutions to the real crisis facing millions.

The debate about Europe at the Tory party conference was said to be one of the most heated exchanges which that normally well-behaved assembly has witnessed in years. Yet it was not really a debate about anything of substance.

Who has read it?

Norman Tebbit blew the gaffe when he got home secretary Kenneth Clarke to admit that he had never even read the Maastricht treaty, which was meant to be a subject of such heartfelt contention. It seems safe to assume that the same level of ignorance characterises most of those who took part in European discussions at all three of the party conferences. So what was all the debate about?

In a sense, the real divisions over Britain's relations with Europe are narrower today than they were 20 years ago. Back then there was a strong lobby in both the Labour and Tory parties which wanted nothing to do with the European Community. Today even the hardened Euro-sceptics feel obliged to concede that, one way or another, Britain's future lies in Europe.

The current row has generated a degree of heat out of all proportion to any difference in practical proposals. It appears that Europe has simply become the number one non-issue around which British politicians campaign for their non-policies. Meanwhile, the real concerns of ordinary people - such as mass unemployment and public sector cuts-don't become issues at all.

Without policies, parliamentary politics is degenerating into even more of a circus than usual. The old alignments and loyalties are under pressure. Instead of coherent parties organised around programmes, political life is becoming a contest between personalities, cliques and factions which really stand for nothing except themselves.

Overnight sensations

Because these groups are not rooted in any solid ideology, they are capable of dramatic changes of direction overnight. So, in the eyes of the Tory government and the opposition parties alike, the ERM can go undergo a sudden transformation from being the solution to Britain's economic problems to the cause of the slump.

The gap between what passes for British politics and the real problems facing people in Britain is growing wider and wider all the time.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992

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