Oct 2007 - An Autumn of Conference Distcontent

01 June 2013

WE keep hearing about a winter of discontent. Well, I tend to have an autumn of discontent when I go to the TUC and Labour Party conferences. You see, I don’t think we have proper conferences any more. We have trade shows for the union movement and marketing jamborees for the Labour ‘brand’.

Both these events seem desperate to show that all the delegates agree with each other, all the time, on everything. If this were true there would be no point in our meeting anyway, and – wouldn’t life be dull?

Do we have differences of opinion? Of course we do! My argument with the people who arrange these meetings is that they see debate as something to avoid. I think it is the opposite. I believe that as soon as any trade union or political party ceases to exchange views on policy and tactics – it is time to call the Co-op’s funeral services. The organization is dead.

As soon as you refuse to have your ideas tested, you are an autocrat. And as soon as you are an autocrat, you are anti-democratic. And as soon as you are anti-democratic, you are opposed to everything that trade unions and the Labour Party stand for.

Do I want to have my beliefs tested in argument? Well, not especially, as you ask! But seriously I accept that debate is essential and fruitful. If your ideas can’t stand up to argument, they should be abandoned. That applies equally to me as an individual, to the general council of the TUC and to ministers in a Labour government.

Change doesn’t come through our leaders telling us what to believe. That was Stalin’s model – and one we rejected many years ago. Change comes when we accept a more powerful argument. I wasn’t told as a young man that I had to alter my views on women’s equality or on sexual politics. My attitudes changed because I was convinced the ‘new’ ideas of the time were right.

TUC and Labour Party chiefs seem to think debate is something to be avoided. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that the only way that a union or a political party stays alive and progresses is through argument. Any meeting called simply so the delegates can agree with the top table is pointless: it is a side-show, not a conference.

And it makes me very discontented.

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