From the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard
Autumn is the time of mists and mellow fruitfulness and falling leaves and thousands of hands flailing in the applause which is offered up at party conferences for the satisfaction of the speakers. The highest form of this applause is the standing ovation, when everyone not only claps but gets to their feet to do so; it is usually reserved for the very famous or the very silly, not necessarily in that order. There must be many people who are trying to carve out a career in politics who need some advice on how to win this signal of acclaim.
To be sure, the whole matter of orchestrating an audience response at these conferences is fraught with difficulties and needs careful consideration. It is in the speaker’s favour that the delegates usually (in the case of the Tories always) come to the conference eager to applaud; it is as much a part of the proceedings as the boozing and intrigue and elbow-pressing. The whole thing is a form of gymnastics—mental, digestive and manual. Then there is the fact that the enthusiasm of the response is often in inverse proportion to the usefulness of what has been said. One example which springs to mind is the late Oswald Mosley, who could bring thousands to their feet with words like:
Hold high the head of England! Lift strong the voice of Empire! . . .This flag still challenges the winds of destiny. This flame still burns. This glory shall not die . . .
And so on. Nobody knew quite what it meant and, since Mosley’s audience was overwhelmingly fascist, nobody was expected to understand. But it certainly provoked the applause. A word of caution, though: Mosley’s ability to excite such intoxication did him no good in the end; he is not an example to be recommended to the aspiring politician.
Another method to be avoided has been practised at Labour Party conferences with some regularity: present notable practitioners are the likes of Lords Shinwell and Noel-Baker. Shinwell, is an ex-rebel of the left wing who was able to be a member of a Labour government which, in the interests of the British capitalist class, fought for six years to restrain workers’ wages. Noel-Baker is the professed pacifist who remains in a party which, among other things, supported one of the greatest wars in the history of capitalism.
These men get ovations at Labour Party conferences because they are old—the inference being that, just as it used to be on the Wilfred Pickles programme, stupidity is fit matter for congratulation provided it emits from an ancient mouth. Noel-Baker, for example, got away with the suggestion that the great power blocs should stop acting like international super powers of capitalism and follow a UN recommendation to throw away their armaments until they have only enough for “internal control”. There are obvious problems for an ambitious politician hoping to muscle in on this type of ovation; few people can produce the symptoms of senile dementia as readily as Michael Foot.
An essential ingredient in any speech designed to win an ovation is a plan to deal with some chronic problem of capitalism, or preferably several at once. This plan is best presented as the result of some dazzling flash of insight denied to lesser intellects—which helps to disguise that the plan is irrelevant or unrealistic or a rehash of already discredited ideas. The Social Democrats were on their feet applauding Roy Jenkins last month for saying that a future SDP government would keep wages in check by taxing firms which allowed rises above the government’s guidelines. There is nothing new in sleek, overfed politicians plotting to ease capitalism’s crises by an attack on workers’ living standards—nor in the listening workers hotly applauding the promise to attack them. Jenkins’s claim to be able so easily to conjure away the present crisis marks him out as worthy of his standing ovation from the bedazzled members of the SDP.
As everyone knows, a few cliches will also help to get the hands banging together. Reference to “this great country of ours” (for Tories); “this great movement of ours” (for Labour); “this great alliance of ours” (for SDP/Liberals) warms the delegates in the confidence that they are doing something historically worthwhile by just listening to such claptrap. A note of defiance is also useful—like William Rodgers, who had the SDP conference on their feet with a speech in which he warned: “If the Prime Minister calls an election she will soon discover what stuff we are made of.” Some delegates might have been a bit nervous, behind their flapping hands, at this; do they really want to show Thatcher, or anyone else, what they are—a ragbag of disillusioned Labourites and Tories hoping for a policy to turn up?
It may be necessary to aim for something less than a standing ovation. Other gratifying levels of response are “loud applause”, or “prolonged applause”, or “strong applause from the floor”, which was what greeted Michael Foot’s declaration at Labour’s conference that “Nothing that I've seen persuades me that CND was wrong.” Delirious nuclear disarmers were applauding (strongly, of course) the clear implication that if Foot ever gets into Number Ten he will set about dismantling British capitalism’s nuclear arsenal. And that brings up the interesting proposal that applause can actually work as a part of the process of self-delusion: or is it just that Labourites will believe, and applaud, almost anything?
And that is an important bit. Those ecstatic faces, crackling hands, stamping feet, are opting to prolong the social system which exploits and degrades the majority of the world’s people. They signal the persistence of the delusion that capitalism can be made free, abundant and humane. They arc not just clapping their hands but offering them up for the manacles. Didn’t somebody once say we have nothing to lose but our chains?