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A tale of two parties Adrian Pepper reflects on the Labour and Conservative party conferences

Political Insider

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What a contrast between the Labour and Conservative party conferences. One was more like a rock concert, the other a dull business convention.

Labour members scent power and they are high on it. A palpable wave of excitement sweeps across the room as Jeremy Corbyn enters. People jostle to get close to him as he shakes a multitude of outstretched hands, smiling contentedly through his newly groomed beard.

Here is a man who spent years in the political wilderness, once dismissed as hopeless idealist, now at 67 being greeted as a Messiah, the one who can deliver Labour back onto the true path of socialism. Over a pint, a Shadow Cabinet Member talks casually about what Labour are going to do “when we are in power”. No ifs, no buts, no doubt at all. Labour have rediscovered their faith in themselves and in their socialist ideals.

Like at an evangelical prayer meeting, it is so easy to get caught up in the positive vibe, to join the believers. But what lies beneath the mood of optimism and idealism captured on the T-shirts of the Labour members at Brighton?

There is no doubt that the trades unions are firmly back in control of the Labour Party. They dominate the national executive, they bankroll the party organisation and they draft the policy pronouncements of John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. Like TV evangelists, their motivation is greed, neatly dressed up as a moral righteousness.

Spend a few days with Labour in Brighton and you get caught up in a cult of Corbyn. Come to Manchester for a dose of the grim realities of government.

Brexit aside, the Tories are grappling with trying to run a government which has limited cash to spend and a raft of different interests to try to placate. So technocratic have the Tories become that the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt even presented a series of detailed Powerpoint graphs to explain his strategy for supporting the National Health Service in the years ahead. The Labour Conference, by contrast, was characterised by tub-thumping demands for more pay for nurses.

With a wounded leader who is still struggling to exert control over the political agenda, the Conservatives are in no mood to indulge in fantasy politics. They have made the decision to stick with Mrs May for the time being, to see them through Brexit. Her appearance at the 1922 Committee reception was greeted with a spontaneous rendition of Happy Birthday – sung for a friend. She is no political idol in the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” mould.

While Boris Johnson is positioning himself as the only senior Conservative offering a dose of big personality leadership, he is seen by many MPs as self-indulgent. He will only be called upon to step in and lead if the Brexit negotiations run into the sand. Virtually everyone in the party recognises that Mrs May will not fight the next general election but few want her to throw in the towel yet.

For now, it is all about steadying the Conservative ship. Even the party modernisation project – begun by David Cameron – seems to have been put on hold. It is very male, very white and very corporate. Even the blue rinsed ladies of old are absent. Perhaps it is because the event is no longer held at the seaside; perhaps it is because they have just grown too old.

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