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Monday, September 22, 2008 

Dawn of the Dead comes to Manchester.

According to Nick Clegg in his conference speech last week, we have a zombie government. That probably isn't entirely accurate; more appropriate is that we have a zombie Labour party. We aren't here talking about the sort of zombies depicted in certain films that acquire super-human strength despite being dead, being able to rip apart the living with their bare hands to feast on the gooey treats within, but rather the sort of undead creature that is to all intents and purposes dead but refuses to give up the ghost, like Norman Tebbit or the Queen Mother in her final years. To stretch the analogy even further and refer to undoubtedly the greatest zombie film of all time, Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the conference attendees are even reflecting the behaviour of their fictional cousins by taking over a fortified building, somewhere that reminds them of what they used to do. The difference is that this time there's going to be no Roger, Peter, Fran and Stephen to evict the zombies before themselves being forced to leave by looters on motorbikes.

There is little doubt that the stench of death pervades the Manchester Central conference centre. This is a party, truly, desperately going through the motions, pretending to the outside world that everything is going swimmingly, that the economic crisis has given them an opportunity they perhaps didn't have a week ago, that it can still be turned around, and that in the words of David Miliband, the party should "prove the fatalists wrong". It's probably not worth going by remarks which can be misconstrued by those overhearing them, but Miliband's apparent suggestion to an aide that he had toned down his speech because he wanted to avoid a "Heseltine moment" speaks volumes. Ostensibly, the entire event is building up to Gordon Brown's speech tomorrow afternoon, which supposedly is meant to help determine how much longer he might have in office. The reality is that the conference has became so stage managed that reading anything into the immediate reaction is almost as pointless as the entire sojourn itself. Long ago was anything that might really trouble the leadership stripped out; now delegates just vote for policies that will go before the party's national executive committee, where they'll be sharply rejected.

All that's left therefore is for ministers to announce the odd new policy, if they can be called that, in otherwise soporific speeches which nonetheless bloggers and commentators rate because they simply have to write something. Accordingly, David Clark asks whether Miliband is "the English Obama", hopefully rhetorically. Likewise, Lance Price, an ex-spin doctor, asks whether James Purnell is "Labour's Theo Walcott". No reason here to not respond bluntly; no, he's a right-wing Blairite that chose the wrong party to join, and if he's another leadership candidate, then Labour is not just undead, it really has passed on. Jacqui Smith additionally emerged yesterday and revealed the plans for "reform" on prostitution. While these are not quite as bad as they might have been, Labour still intends to try to make kerb-crawling illegal, enhance powers to both police and local councils to close down brothels if prostitutes are being run by a pimp or are trafficked, which in other words will most likely mean anyone who fancies ridding their neighbourhood of the moral scourge will more easily succeed, whilst men who pay for sex with women "who are exploited", i.e. controlled for another person's gain, which again means either run by a pimp or trafficked, will be able to be prosecuted. This should at least lead to some interesting conversations in brothels up and down the land, where the punter questions the worker before handing over the money and dropping his/her trousers about their working conditions. If anything proves that New Labour is still just as illiberal, idiotic and distant from the realities of the real world as it's always been, then this must be it.

The award for the most chutzpah though must go to both Alastair Darling and Brown himself for their various utterances over the weekend and today. Only now that the proverbial horse has firmly bolted do they dare to mention the inequity of the City bonus culture or suggest firmer regulation of the City, but even now such a simple little word as "greed", one even used by John McCain in the United States, is too obscene to pass their lips. Simon Hoggart has already referred to Brown's vision of the reform needed to correct his own reforms which got us into this mess as the Theseus defence: thanks to his magic thread, we'll all be OK, which is reassuring. Even these slight sops to the left though are in keeping with the pretence being kept up by the party of doing something whilst actually doing nothing, as we all know that they don't mean a word of it, nor is there much in the way of legislating which can be done to stop CEOs and board members from awarding themselves such pay deals. Instead we must be thankful that the government stepped in last week and allowed Lloyds TSB to take over HBOS and create an behemoth of a bank, a merger that would have otherwise have been rejected by the competition commission as likely to become a monopoly. Doubtless we will be just as thankful in a few years' time when the bonuses are again being ramped up whilst the difference and diversity on the high street will be even further restricted and diluted.

Does it really seem five years ago that Brown made his barnstorming, defining speech whilst chancellor about being "best when we are Labour", which made some of us hope, probably beyond any reason, that a Brown premiership would be different, bolder, better than Blair's? There won't of course be any repetition of that tomorrow, nor should there be. He needs to get the balance right between introspection, admitting he was wrong over the 10p rate, that he has made other mistakes over the past year and that he needs to improve, and setting out something approaching a vision of how he intends to lead both the party and the country from now on. He could do worse than go along the lines of suggesting that the economic crisis is a paradigm shift or an epoch making moment, even if it isn't, suggesting that the time when the party leadership would ask how high when the CBI said jump is over, and build from there. Moreover, he ought to confront the "elephant in the room": the challenge to himself. Directly ask the party what they will replace him with, and just how much difference there really is between what he is offering, both to the party and the country, with the so-called contenders. It won't stop them from overthrowing him if it's what they've already decided upon, but it might strike a chord with some in the nation itself. If you're going to go down, you might as well do it with both some glory and some dignity, and when neither of those qualities have been present in Manchester at all, that really might make some sit up and take notice.

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