DELEGATEs and other visitors to this year’s Labour conference in Brighton have been somewhat taken aback by the lack of security around the conference centre.
Gone are the ranks of police officers carrying guns. Gone too are the airport-style security machines to examine bags. Instead a few stewards politely check your badge and then allow you to walk through a turnstile. The conference hotel where the leader stays is not even part of the security zone.
The immediate reaction of relief –that it takes a few seconds rather than an hour of queueing to get in to the conference centre – is quickly replaced with thoughts about what this says about the current state of the Labour Party.
While the actual decision to scale back security is a Home Office call, the move has become a metaphor for the parlous state of Labour among party members and other attendees.
There is a certain macho element to British politics about the need for security. In other words, if you are important and mean something in British society then there are people who want to cause you harm.
Labour is, after all, the Iraq issue party. It is unconceivable that there would have not been maximum security in the days of Blair and Brown.
One delegate said: “It just shows we don’t matter any more.”
Another said that Labour “now knows what it was like to be the Lib Dems before they became a party of government”.
This feeling of the party’s importance somehow being demeaned feeds into a growing sense that Labour has the wrong man as leader, and that Ed Miliband is not making the necessary impact to win the next election. Many believe that the Tories could still do it, and with the opinion polls narrowing their fears could yet be realised.
But there is also another impression that the lack of security gives, and that is of a party which simply cannot afford the cost.
The vexed issue of whether trade union members can still be party affiliates or will have to apply for full membership under the planned reforms is threatening to hit party finances by up to £8 million.
For a party already significantly in debt this is a big problem. Already the GMB union has pulled £1 million of funding in protest. So while it may not be true that Labour cannot afford proper security, the impression this situation gives is of a hard-up party.
For parties to look like they are ready to govern, there is a certain sense that they need to show the trappings of power. The lack of heavy security leaves the party appearing as though it is not ready for government and has yet to find its mojo.
After last year’s One Nation conference Labour thought it was on the way back, but there is a sense that Miliband’s speech in Manchester last year has yet to turn into something of substance.