The “Free Palestine” banners were kept a wee way from the gates of the Labour Party Conference last week. Keir Starmer’s cordon sanitaire stretched to just over the length of a barge pole while speechwriters [spin doctors] dashed out declarations of solidarity with Israel for all the top-billing speeches.
It’s not cynical to note the haste – that Labour didn’t prevaricate about its response says something profound about its current character – and the need for it was made evident by the rapid circulation the same day of a deep-fake “recording” of Starmer barracking aides for suggesting an interview with “the ****ing Tablet” (probably, in the context, referring to the august Jewish quarterly rather than the interesting Catholic weekly).
To my rookie senses, Labour seemed to know what it was doing in the conference centre close by Liverpool’s Albert Dock: winning. It was droll that the most convenient bar for activists to toast prospects of success was called the Long Shot (where Catholics for Labour and the party’s Manchester City Supporters Group convened in the same enclave on the Sunday – Wythenshawe and Sale East MP Mike Kane runs them both).
The big beasts of the nineties and noughties came back to bask in it all and you could bump into them wandering through the conference stalls, much as you can stumble into former internationals inside a cricket ground during a Test match. If you’re clued-up on this stuff, I’m sure it was very exciting to see Peter Mandelson strolling along Pier Head.
Two names of a similar vintage, Ruth Kelly and Jim Murphy, drew the centrist crowds for a discussion of how Labour would govern, where they were joined by Maurice Glasman, architect of Blue Labour (the blue-collar campaign group, not the City supporters’ club) and John Rentoul, Tony Blair’s biographer. Rentoul was perhaps bemused to find himself on a panel with two Catholics and a Jewish advocate of Catholic social teaching, but gamely stuck to his own magisterium: centrism was “whatever Tony says it is”.
Despite Glasman’s swipes at Blair’s “Market-Leninism” and the failings of water companies – whose industry body Kelly chairs – they seemed to find a common line on the party’s positive if uninspiring prospects: Murphy suggested its anthem would be a slow acoustic rendition of Things Can Only Get Better, perhaps by Leonard Cohen.
As Andrew Marr remarked in The New Statesman, Liverpool is a funny place to hold a conference about stability and be-suited commercial sense (though those priorities were reflected in that edition of the Staggers, which was 40 per cent advertorial). Marr was thinking of the militant tendency city council of the 1980s, but activists who slipped across Strand past the Baltic Fleet – a much better and cheaper pub than the Long Shot – and towards Central would reach Seel Street, where the sculptor Arthur Dooley once had his studio in a warehouse rented from a gangster.
Dooley’s patent radicalism, spun out of Catholic and Communist doctrines, is more characteristic (if not typical) of the city. At the height of the Cold War, he wrote to the Pope urging him to make a friend of the Soviet Union; on another occasion, he told him that true ecumenism required embracing Orange Lodges. Earlier in his career, he had deserted from the British Army to join Palestinian guerrillas but never considered himself an enemy of Israel. But he hated art schools.
This isn’t the kind of realistic thinking we want in the great offices of state and today’s Labour party is drawn from central casting for the role of government-in-waiting. We want sensible, be-suited helmsmen to guide us through this era of change.
It was Glasman, of course, who cited Pope Francis’ point that the changes are of a different order of magnitude; we are in fact living through a change of era. The crises to which Labour is offering mature responses aren’t the sort to be solved by realistic thinking and everybody agreeing to agree. Dooley’s ideas might not be the answer – but they’re the kinds of ideas we might have to palette if we’re to make anything of whatever comes next.