Jack Straw: Whirlwind of change since first conference
First published Thursday 25 September 2014 in Opinion
THIS week’s Labour Party Conference in Manchester was the fortieth I’ve attended. It will be my last as an elected MP.
My first was in Blackpool, in 1972. In between, I’ve missed three, all for family reasons.
So what’s changed?
The smell – stale smoke everywhere. If it wasn’t your own cigarette you’d be inhaling, it would be someone else’s.
The colour – a rather dirty red brown. All the men wore suits and ties (brown ones seemed popular – they went with the nicotine stains).
The atmosphere – often unpleasant. The 1970s were a period of national decline. Factories, shipyards, pits were closing. There were huge tensions inside the movement: should the “struggle” be by Parliamentary means alone, or by general strikes and civil disobedience?
The power. The trades unions called the shots, with their six million block votes. Constituency parties scarcely had a look-in.
The dramas. Nothing was certain. Crucial resolutions could fail, for the most bizarre reasons. It was self-harm on a catastrophic scale.
In 1975, I witnessed the great trade union leader Jack Jones scuffling with a Labour MP on a public platform.
In 1976, Chancellor Denis Healey was given just five minutes, from the floor, to explain his policies – booed and heckled for his pains.
In 1978, a straightforward resolution of support for the Labour Government was defeated by 2.8 million to 3.6 million!
It took heroic efforts, led by Neil Kinnock, and then Tony Blair, to give the party to its members and end the nastiness.
Most memorable conferences? That’s easy. Bournemouth, 1985, when Neil denounced the Trotskyist Militant Tendency.
Best moment for me? That has to be the 1997 Conference, in Brighton, our first in government for 18 years – and there I was as Home Secretary.
Is this the end of Labour conferences for me? Certainly not. But my pass will no longer say “MP – Ex-Officio”.