On Sunday, I watched a video of Matt Hancock doing a constituency walkabout, which our former Covid overlord posted and then deleted from his own Twitter account. It’s unclear how many hours or even days of footage the ex-health secretary had to film in order to splice together a full 49 seconds of people not screaming observations beginning with the words “Oi, Hancock, you absolute …”. But we’re left with Matt awkwardly fist-bumping and hugging local women, with multilayered comments about “coming out the other side”. I had only one question: how is it possible that this video is still more dignified than the Labour party conference?
To Brighton, where most coverage of Labour feels like intruding on private grief. Top line: Keir Starmer remains juuuust a few infinity stones short of a gauntlet. A national executive committee member announced that Labour’s legal fees were now £2m a year. What are its sedative bills? This entire event has spent four days crying out to be locked in a loft – one that’s insulated, of course, ideally with 2-metre-thick lead.
The good news is that Emily Thornberry has petrol; the bad news is, she poured it all over Angela Rayner’s comments. This is the already infamous “scum” rant, about which you’ll be hearing much, much more from the Conservative party for a very long time indeed. Many have long ago given up expecting Labour to see round corners, but being able to see two days in front of them feels like a reasonable ask. Gift-wise, Rayner’s diatribe was the equivalent of Liam Byrne’s note saying “there is no money” – a stunningly malleable attack line, apparently justified on the basis that Rayner was talking to her base. Feel like this shouldn’t be breaking news, but by way of a pointer: YOUR BASE IS GOING TO VOTE FOR YOU ANYWAY.
Enter Emily Thornberry. At the last real-world Labour conference, in 2019, Thornberry began a speech with an anecdote about some naughty fun times, and a nose-tapping gesture that saw her forced to clarify she was talking about sex not cocaine. This time round she was on hand – unforced – to go on TV and clarify, of Rayner, that “there may have been drink partaken” at the fringe event where she was speaking. In summary, the shadow trade secretary’s defence of a supposed leader-in-waiting amounts to: give her a break, she was pissed. Righto!
Unfortunately, other defenders were available. There were various attempts to explain Rayner’s cock-up by saying this “reflects exactly how working-class people talk”, which seemed patronisingly homogenising, particularly emanating from a conference so working class that the big off-Broadway hits tend to be things like a man called Piers shouting at a man called Jeremy. (This was the latest episode of The Corbyns, where one of Jeremy Corbyn’s six conference speeches and events was disrupted by his brother, Piers, shouting and giving out leaflets that claimed manmade climate change does not exist.)
Other lowlights? How about shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s interview with LBC, in which she spent nearly two whole minutes physically huffing and puffing rather than answer Nick Ferrari’s question as to whether it’s transphobic to say only women have cervixes. Have you seen this clip? The trouble with the constant mention of cervixes is that I very quickly worked out I’d rather be having a smear test than listening to Reeves not managing to scrape out an answer to the question. It was so extremely painful that I swiftly moved into the bargaining stage: would I submit to eight consecutive smear tests if it could be scrubbed from the internet? Probably. To all the advisers who somehow didn’t realise their shadow minister needed an answer – just any answer, even a stupid one – to the cervix question, let us simply say: well done. Go back to your simulations and prepare for government.
Some legend in his own lunchtime resigned yesterday afternoon from the shadow cabinet. At a Tribune rally last night, this Andy McDonald was lionised alongside John McDonnell for quitting over the “point of principle” that the minimum wage should be £15. Less than 12 months ago, McDonnell called for Covid “heroes” to be rewarded by raising the minimum wage to £10.
Confused? Don’t be. Virginia Woolf (one of Labour’s long line of on/off antisemites) once described the party’s conference as “a buzzing bursting humming perfectly self-dependent other world”, so it’s best understood on its own, offputtingly mad terms rather than anyone else’s. Even so, given the sheer distance from power, it does feel deeply Pooterish for conference to be passing thunderous motions on Aukus and whatnot. Might as well pass motions on the plotlines of the next Marvel movie cycle or what Jill Biden should do with the White House curtains. That said, I enjoyed passionate defences of Labour’s love affair with one-member-one-vote from people who discovered politics about five minutes ago. While this system did give the world Corbyn McCorbynface, it’s fair to say Labour’s affinity with the idea has historically run as deep as David Cameron’s with West Villa/Aston Ham.
As for enticing policies, without wishing to let daylight in on tragic, no one other than hyper-engaged people will be mulling on them while they’re in line for the petrol pumps. Labour has spent whatever this conference costs to stage looking like a bunch of amateurs. Starmer’s entire Marr interview, Reeves spectacularly failing the pap test, Rayner, Thornberry suggesting Rayner was pissed, the Corbyn brothers giving it the big I am: these are the viral horrors that seep into the general consciousness while real life is happening elsewhere. There will always be people who think Labour’s deep electoral woes are down to not playing with enough “passion”, or some whimsy farted out by broadsheet newspaper columnists like me. They aren’t. Labour looks a mess, and a long run of electoral results suggests most normal people haven’t got time for it.
At the heart of it all, Keir Starmer remains the sort of person things happen to – a reactor to events rather than someone who might have the potential to shape them. He feels like the inveterate advocate who waits for others to be judge and jury. Labour appears to have spent the past 18 months hoping to look like the least-worst option in the wake of an appallingly mismanaged pandemic. The polls thought differently. The party now appears to be waiting for a winter of discontent to look like the least-worst option. What can you say? Maybe it’ll be lucky? Between this government and this opposition, the rest of us certainly won’t be.