As a former Labour Party member who is now a sort-of supporter, albeit semi-lapsed (can you see how painfully I’m sitting on the fence here?), each year I try and make it my business to tune in to our great leader’s speech to the massed ranks of the faithful at the party conference. Sadly, I was busy this afternoon, so had to catch the highlights on the news this evening.
And something rather confused me.
No, it wasn’t the Right Reverend Blair’s speech that confused me. That seemed fairly straightforward, really — it was a less strident, less all-conquering sermon, undoubtedly influenced by the distinct lack of popularity he’s currently experiencing in almost all quarters. I don’t think he could have held out more olive branches to party members if he’d tried, even admitting that he was wrong about the main reason for going to war in Iraq. While the rest of the country has been telling him for months, in no uncertain terms, that Saddam Hussein obviously had no weapons of mass destruction hidden up his sleeves, the Prime Minister has finally caught up with this fact for himself. Bravo, Tony. Of course, he didn’t go so far as to say that the whole war itself was wrong, but I guess that would have been one road to Damascus moment too far.
He further placated (and possibly even delighted) his Brighton audience by nicking Gordon Brown’s trick from last year’s conference, frequently referring to ‘Labour’ or ‘the Labour Party’ — which is, after all, what they’re called. I decided to go through the full text of Blair’s speech with a fine-toothed comb (I know, I really should get out more), and I counted five mentions of ‘Labour’, a faintly staggering nine uses of the decidedly old school ‘Labour Party’, yet only two paltry references to the modernising leader’s favoured ‘New Labour’ project. Oh yes, he was definitely trying to press all the right buttons amongst the party diehards, and the trade union delegations scattered across the hall may well have been dabbing at their eyes with red handkerchiefs. “Any minute now,” they were probably thinking, “he’s going to announce that they’re renationalising the railways and introducing a minimum wage of £6.50 an hour. Hurrah for Socialism!”
But I’ve digressed. I was confused about something, and I sense that by now you’re equally confused about the exact nature of what confused me in the first place.
Well, it was this year’s conference slogan. There it was, the bold text almost unavoidable every time the cameras panned across the stage or the conference hall: “A better life for all”. Gosh, how terribly bland. Yet, blandness aside, I was finding it deeply troubling, You see, “A better life for all” is eerily similar, yet also alarmingly different, to last year’s Labour Party conference slogan of “A future fit for all”.
It is, isn’t it? I’m not just imagining things.
Hmm. Let me get this straight in my tiny mind. Last year, Tony Blair’s aim was for all of us to have a decent future. This year, however, he wants us to have a better life. So does this mean that Labour is no longer concerned about our future? Maybe the Prime Minister thinks that he’s actually sorted out all our futures over the past twelve months (without us noticing, seemingly), meaning that he can turn his attention to the here and now? Or maybe the PM and his team held an utterly despondent Cabinet meeting a few weeks back — as violence raged in Iraq, the Countryside Alliance stood baying for ministerial blood at the gates of Downing Street and the opinion polls collapsed all around them — during which they concluded that since they didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance about doing anything for our future, they should forget about it and simply get by with doing what’s achievable right now. Which isn’t much.
Hence the phrase “A better life for all”. It gently, almost imperceptibly, lowers our expectations.
Or does it? Maybe “A better life for all” is, er, better than “A future fit for all”? You can see why I’m confused.
But then again, maybe we should throw caution to the wind and just give the people what they want, namely “A better life and a future fit for all. Please. If it’s not too much trouble”. (Incidentally, those last few words have been added to the slogan — despite making it rather more ungainly — because we should never forget that we’re British, and therefore aren’t really that bothered and don’t particularly want to make a fuss.)
Which all goes to show that political parties should think about their slogans rather more carefully. Don’t simply opt for apparently powerful but ultimately empty, meaningless rhetoric. When conference season comes around, you need a phrase that is going to sum up the past year of your existence for the voting population at large, telling them precisely and concisely what you stand for, what you represent, at that moment in time. So in Brighton in 2004, maybe the Labour Party should have gone for: “Christ, what a year. Sorry”.