The Westminster Conference and a Parade of Politicos

With an election on the horizon, you might have expected something a bit challenging, or radical, or even thoughtful, from the leading politicians who gave up half an hour each or so to come and talk to a hall full of two and a half thousand A-level politics students. Alas, elections encourage a retreat into cliché-ridden tribalism, and most of the speakers at the Westminster Central Hall gathering on Monday didn’t disappoint on that score. The best one of the lot, from the point of view of sheer, unadulterated, tribal clap-trap, was almost certainly Frank Dobson. Frank’s tribalism dates from an earlier era of tribalism, when it was ok for aspiring Labourites to condemn the “stinking rich” (and yes, he really did use that phrase as if it had some sort of revolutionary meaning). He must have missed the speech by Peter Mandelson that “New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” You see, it’s filthy rich these days, not stinking.

Not that the largely incoherent and inaudible Frank was necessarily the centre of his own speech. That honour went to the boy and girl sitting on the back seats that face the rest of the 2,000 or so delegates. Amazingly oblivious to the fact that their seating arrangement – on a level behind the speaker – put them in the eye-line of everyone else, these two politics gems spent their time fondly hitting and hugging each other in one of the most public making out sessions imaginable. Who needed Frank Dobson when this sort of unwitting entertainment was on offer.

The day was actually kicked off by an unashamedly aggressive Conservative Party Chairman, Eric Pickles. Occasionally monosyllabic with his answers, and a little over-keen to explain the glories of internet campaigning, Eric was particularly fragile when asked about hung parliaments and Tory deals with other parties – the conference chairman certainly got a bit of Yorkshire aggression when he tried to over-step the mark by asking a question. He made up for being cut off by Pickles admirably throughout the rest of the conference, though, by trying to cut everyone else’s question short with the phrase “Ask a question please”. I think that’s what all those students thought they were doing in the first place.

Simon Hughes was worthy but dull, and went through a panoply of liberal thought that stopped just short of hoping for world peace. He was admirably emulated by his leader, Nick Clegg, who was asked which policy he would hold onto most if engaged in the tawdry horse-trading of coalition politics. Clegg said it would be ‘fairness’. Hmmm. Difficult to argue with that one really. He also told us there was a shooting gallery in the House of Commons but not a crèche. A point that doubtless concerns numerous voters.

At least Clegg escaped the anger of the female student who decided to have a go at the quiet, humble, courteous Sir George Young. Sir George is the Tories’ shadow Leader of the House, and had been asked to speak on parliamentary reform. The angry female aggressively demanded why he was wasting his time talking about changes to Prime Minister’s Questions, and not the Iraq war, or unemployment. Perhaps she hadn’t been briefed on what the topics of the day were. Or perhaps, like Frank Dobson, she was stuck in the old time-warp of 1970s class warfare – had she known he went to Eton, she could have added ‘toff’ to her accusations against Sir George.

Oliver Letwin provided some sharp answers to what was a largely Q and A session in his case, while two of the big names came in the afternoon. Jack Straw has an unwarranted reputation as one of Labour’s best performers, and the chairman roused the conference audience into a frenzy of support when he introduced Straw as the “man who demolished Nick Griffin on Question Time”. Actually, Straw did nothing of the sort – Griffin managed to destroy himself quite nicely. Griffin’s best publicity comes when he is absent anyway – most of the politicians addressing us managed to work Griffin and the BNP into their speeches at some point, if only for the mass cheer that always comes from attacking him. Only once did a questioner raise the challenge that perhaps the BNP was doing so well because mainstream parties were failing so badly? Straw, meanwhile, should have been challenged on being one of the government’s longest serving and most illiberal faces – the man who as Foreign Secretary helped us into the Iraq War, as Home Secretary ensured the development of the ID cards scheme, and as Justice Secretary sought to over-turn one of his own Freedom of Information laws to prevent us reading the Cabinet minutes about the Iraq decision. If you’re Jack Straw, which bit of your reflection in the mirror each morning radiates integrity I wonder.

And finally there was Speaker John Bercow. Since he also addressed the Hansard Society later on, along very similar, if more considered, lines about the ‘outreach’ of parliament, I think we can leave his ruminations to a subsequent post. Just as we will leave the post-politics student pandemonium of the evening in the unwritten ether.


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