Cablegate: Uk Labour Spring Conference: Good Intentions But
DE RUEHLO #0639/01 0631706
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 031706Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY LONDON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7659
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L LONDON 000639
EO 12958 DECL: 03/03/2018
TAGS PGOV, PREL, PINR, UK
SUBJECT: UK LABOUR SPRING CONFERENCE: GOOD INTENTIONS BUT
FEW GOOD VIBRATIONS
REF: LONDON 453
Classified By: Ambassador Robert Tuttle, reasons 1.4 b, d
1. (C/NF) Summary: The Labour Party Spring Conference, held February 27 - March 2 in Birmingham, was characterized by low energy, poor attendance, and a lack of charismatic leadership, despite serving as a kick-off to the party’s campaign for the May 1 local elections in England and Wales. In his March 2 key note speech, Prime Minister Brown emphasized the need to prepare for the economy of the future and counted the opportunity costs for Britain of poverty, substandard education, and poor health care vowing that his “purposeful and progressive” government would continue to battle those scourges. Brown’s vision excited no opposition, but it excited no enthusiasm either at a pre-campaign conference that suffered from low attendance and, seemingly, straightened finances. Aimed primarily at Labour’s local level activists, the conference focused on recruiting female candidates, improving communications with minority communities, and enhancing Labour’s performance in local government. Media reporting focused on the irony that Secretary for Communities and Local Government Hazel Blears
SIPDIS lauded Mayor Ken Livingstone for “revitalizing London” ahead of the hotly-contested May 1 mayoral race, without recalling that only eight years ago Labour expelled Livingstone from the party for insisting on running as an independent. Foreign Secretary David Miliband provided rare moments of star power for a party that seems increasingly to miss Tony Blair’s charisma. End Summary.
Brown: “Use the Opportunity of Power”
2. (C/NF) Labour’s Spring Conference February 27-March 2 in Birmingham, billed as the launching event for the May 1 local elections, featured a keynote speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown intended to fire up the Labour faithful. In the event, Brown’s speech, eloquent as it was in articulating his vision of the party’s purpose, failed to move the audience beyond more than polite applause. Opening with an admission that the last few months had been difficult, Brown talked about the series of challenges his government had faced as soon as it came into office: floods, foot and mouth disease, avian flu, and the global credit crunch. He made no mention of the decision not to go to early elections that precipitated Labour’s plummeting poll numbers (see ref). Instead, Brown talked about the global economy of the future, in which skilled workers and entrepreneurs would reap high-value returns, and declared that higher standards of education would equip Britons to succeed in globalized future economy. He emphasized his view that poverty, particularly among children, was a “scar on Britain,” and he graphically listed the ways in which the denial of potential through inadequate health and education costs Britain talent and achievement. A Labour government that was “purposeful and progressive” (Brown slipped and said “powerful and progressive” but corrected himself) had to use the “opportunity of power” to bring the “power of opportunity” to those elements of British society in need.
3. (SBU) While Brown’s speech focused largely on domestic issues, he did extend his analysis to the costs of poverty to the rest of the world, noting that 72 million children have no access to schools, and vowing to eliminate diseases such as diphtheria, tuberculosis, and malaria. Brown called for an extension of sanctions on Sudan and for the release of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.
4. (SBU) In a Q&A session that followed Brown’s remarks, many of the questions from the audience had to do with the Labour government’s management of school standards and health care - the bread and butter issues for Labour members at the local level. (Embassy comment: Discussion of educational issues became rather detailed: one Birmingham MP told Poloff that the “Labour Party is made up of teachers,” explaining that their parochial concerns tend to dominate party events. End comment.) Curiously, given media reports of an imminent possible rebellion against the government on pending security legislation to extend the legal detention period from 28 to 42 days, the subjects of terrorism, police powers, and civil liberties were not raised. And while Brown pounded the Conservative Party on its plans for tax cuts and opposition to the Lisbon Treaty’s plan for EU reform, he made little reference to the upcoming battles for local councils in which the Liberal Democrat Party poses as large a threat to Labour as do the Tories. A number of “Labour Students” from Cardiff rose to say she had been eight years old when Labour came to power, and asked what should she tell people now about what makes Labour a radical force? Brown reiterated his calls for
ending poverty and eliminating disease globally. A Palestinian asking what Brown would do to end the conflict in Palestine provoked a rare outburst of applause; Brown responded by noting a planned upcoming investment conference.
Labour’s Financial Woes
5. (C/NF) The lack of energy that hung like a pall over the keynote speech was evident elsewhere, either because of low attendance or the party’s financial woes. Labour members groused that conference organizers had chosen a bad weekend -- Welsh members stayed away to attend the March 1 St. David’s Day festivities back home (St. David is the patron saint of Wales and his feast day is a Welsh nationalist obligation). And the March 2 observance of Mother’s Day in Britain put many prospective attendees in the position of choosing between the Labour Party and their “mums.” Judging by the turnout, Mum won in many cases. Labour Party workers, who have been living on a shoestring for the past several years, were scarce on the ground. Those who were present were not particularly motivated: asked for a copy of the Prime Minister’s speech, one party worker referred Poloff to the website version which, several hours later, had not yet been updated to reflect extensive changes in delivery. Some Labour members, noting the party’s financial straits, asked why so much money had been spent on the Labour deputy leader race in 2007, noting that the money raised by the candidates would have been better spent to support the party’s local campaigns this year.
6. (C) Organized around three key themes, the Conference focused on recruiting female candidates, improving communications with minority communities, and enhancing Labour’s performance on local government. The three areas were selected with a view to preparing for local elections but there seemed to be a disconnect between the state of those efforts and the imminence of the May elections. Regarding women’s empowerment, MP Barbara Follett provided advice on presenting oneself effectively as a woman candidate to an audience of about 25 women that included only one prospective, not active, candidate. (Embassy comment: While Labour rightly congratulates itself on having more female MPs that the Tories, the recruitment/empowerment process at the conference appeared to be still in its early stages. End comment.) Local Labour organizations and the trades unions, according to other speakers on women’s issues, are where women have to rise through the ranks without much help from the central party apparatus.
Reaching out to Muslim Voters
7. (C) Ten people (including Poloff) showed up at an event aimed at improving Labour outreach to Muslim communities. (Embassy comment: Given Labour’s loss of Muslim support following the Iraq War, the low turnout by party activists at this event was inexplicable. End comment.) Manchester Councilor and former Lord Mayor Afzal Khan provided recommendations to Labour candidates looking for votes in Muslim communities, including: use “As Salam Aleikum” as a greeting; don’t get hung up on shaking hands with females; call into Muslim radio programs; send cards for Muslim religious holidays; and wait outside mosques on Friday to hand out leaflets. Labour MEP Gary Titley from Bolton also provided the earnest advice to avoid assuming that all Muslims hold identical views and to maintain links with community-based organizations. One British Muslim from Nottingham rose to describe what he felt was suppression of a large Muslim contingent in his local Labour party; Khan told him there was a democratic process and the Muslims in Nottingham should use it.
8. (SBU) Secretary for Communities and Local Government Hazel
Blears led the way on Labour’s achievements in local government. Birmingham’s revitalized town center, including the conference center that was the venue for the event, were held up as Labour achievements, as was London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s record in “revitalizing London.” In break out groups, however, there was one ominous session on “effective opposition.” Labour members complained that for Labour councilors - who are on the front lines, so to speak, against Tory and LibDem-dominated councils - there is little or no support from the party in either substantive policy terms or personal assistance.
Miliband’s Star Power
9. (C/NF) In an otherwise low key conference, the frisson of excitement whenever Foreign Secretary David Miliband appeared was palpable. The European Parliament Labour Party lunch-time event on the Lisbon Treaty that featured Miliband as speaker drew a packed hall. He followed that appearance by a session with over a hundred Labour Students who clearly idolized him. Stumbling into what was belatedly revealed as a “private session,” Poloff heard Miliband outline his criteria for a “successful country” of the future: openness, empowerment of the whole population, and global linkages. There is increasingly less of a distinction between foreign and domestic policies, he told the students, and the challenge is to mobilize people to change. The lessons of the 80s and 90s are that “rainbow coalitions don’t work;” in order to mobilize “dynamic forces,” political leaders must develop a unifying narrative or ideology. In this respect, Labour must decide if it is the party of the working class or the party of the middle class. Answering questions on foreign policy, Miliband supported UN reform and noted the “real issue” at the UN is the UN’s failure to deliver on its “responsibility to protect,” because most threats to civilians come from their own governments and not foreign invasions. He defended UK participation in China’s Olympic games as an opportunity to shine a light on “the real China, warts and all.” He emphasized that Iran represented dangers not just in nuclear weapons development and support for terrorism but also through its own domestic human rights practices; for example, he noted that Iran has the highest per capita rate of capital punishment in the world.
10. (C/NF) Labour members have been increasingly asking themselves the same question raised by the student from Cardiff: what makes Labour “radical” after nearly 11 years in government? For a party that still contains a large element who feel more comfortable in opposition, such self-questioning contributes to a feeling of post-Blair rudderlessness. Even though Blair ended up unpopular, he was the sun around which the party orbited, and his speeches, no matter the content, sparked an emotional response. Brown’s earnest and praiseworthy vision excites no opposition and yet it seems to excite no great enthusiasm either. With two months to go before local elections, a financially-constrained Labour hardly seemed on the verge of mobilizing for a campaign that will not only determine Labour’s fortunes on the local level, but may also affect Gordon Brown’s own tenure as leader. The poorly attended conference lacked the buzz that a strong parliamentary party representation would have provided and, Miliband’s star power notwithstanding, there was no catwalk of prospective challengers to Brown. But the irony of Labour’s holding up Ken Livingstone as a model of Labour achievement, only eight years after his expulsion from the party for running for London mayor as an independent, was not lost on the UK media.
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