THE Labour Party's conference at Brighton last weekend decided nothing: it was not intended to. The occasion was not to make policy, and there were no resolutions before the 1,190 delegates.
Opponents within the party of the Government's intentions on economic policy and defence had. therefore, no opportunity of rallying support within the hall for any kind of challenge.
Formally, the conference was a business session to discuss the party's progress during the past year though, naturally, it was dressed up as a postponed victory rally. Even the Prime Minister's speech was technically part of a debate on pages 3 to 9 of the party's 110page annual report.
The whole significance of the occasion, therefore. lay in the -points which the key speakers chose to make and in the interpretation which informed members of the Parliamentary party were putting on them.
Judged on this basis. one of the major though least publicised themes of the conference was that planning is for man, not man for planning. This was the burden of the conference's three major speeches — those of Mr. Wilson. of Mr. George Brown, his Economic Affairs Minister. and of the retiring Labour party chairman, Mr. Anthony Greenwood, M.P.
All implied, if they did not say so expressly. that the Labour Government is to he judged as much by the extent to which it enhances the freedom of the individual as by the success of its economic policies.
Several Labour M.P.s have expressed irritation at the ease with which the Conservative Party has been able to represent -itself as the champion of freedom for the individual. But they are aware that this success of the Conservatives springs from a very real fear in the minds of many people that "Socialist planning" is a Marxist formula into which individuals and groups alike must somehow he fitted.
Mr. Wilson took express pains to destroy this fear. Speaking on Saturday afternoon. he told the conference: "Our object is not merely to maintain but to enhance the freedom of the individual. Because we believe in planning and, precisely because we do, we have to ensure that not only does Socialist planning not infringe freedom but that in everything we do we extend and make more real the freedom of the 'individual in an increasingly complex society."
Mr. George Brown clearly felt the point to be in need of further reinforcement, In an unscripted extension to his winding-up speech on Sunday morning, he declared, and won considerable applause for declaring. that a materialist philosophy would he an inadequate inspiration for a Labour Government.
The Labour leadership have thus taken the earliest available opportunity of publicly identifying this bogey, and of challenging their own party to ensure that no opponent is given an excuse to revive it. 'I he testing time will not come until later, when the Government brings forward its detailed proposals for long-term regional and economic planning. But Mr. Wilson was extremely candid in telling his critics where to look if Labour is to be found seriously wanting.
He gave concrete evidence of Labour's concern that the welfare of the individual should be paramount in Government planning by referring to the already announced plans for reform of the legal system.
He spoke of the appointment of Lord Gardiner, widely recognised as having a humanitarian approach to law reform, as Lord Chancellor and reiterated Labour's proposals for a Law Reform Bill and for the creation of a Parliamentary Commissioner (a British version of the Ombudsman).
If the Government succeeds in bringing the law up to date -and -it will fail sinless it avoids the pitfall of replacing one complicated piece of machinery with another equally or more complicated labour will be able to claim credit for overcoming what is probably the biggest single hurdle -in the achievement, of the "just Society" to which they arc pledged.
The staggered approach to legislation is characteristic of the Government's immediate post-election programme. in which last weekend's conference came as the first breathing space. The Evictions Bill and the measures to increase widows' earnings were announced extremely early. Both are emergency actions. which the Government has preferred to introduce to provide partial relief from distress rather than wait for far-reaching social legislation which will be tackled in the New Year, when there is an incomes policy with which to link it.
There is, of course. some delay implicit even in this approach, and it has caused rumblings of discontent from Left-wingers within the Parliamentary Labour Party, particularly on the pensions issue. To judge, however. from the insignificance of its efforts at Brighton last week both inside and outside' the conference the I.eft has a long way to go before it regains its influence of a couple of years ago. With the Government's defence policy once decided its opportunities will become fewer and its motives increasingly suspect.
Prominent among the .issues which the Government wants to tackle in 1965 is racial discrimination. There will probably be a Bill to outlaw incitement to racial violence in public places. This will afford an opportunity to a number of M.P.s, among them several Jews and Catholics who are known to be anxious to deal with religious discrimination at the same time. It is quite possible that the Government will a cce p t a straightforward amendment, which would be easy to compose, and would invite no serious opposition.
Catholic organisations in Northern Ireland have often protested that one of the consequences of religious discrimination is discrimination in employment. There is. however. little chance of the Government agreeing to accept an amendment dealing with employment chiefly because such legislation would be difficult in practice to enforce.
Labour's plan for education is unlikely to be as controversial as has often been supposed. The Government's chief concern is to establish an overall national framework, involving the complete abolition of selection and the adoption of a universal age for transfer from one type of school to another. while leaving local authorities a considerable amount of freedom. They will for example, be able In use their own initiative in adopting or extending the comprehensive principle. The effect of such a measure on denomi • national schools would be that they would negotiate more with local authorities and less with the Central Government.
To sum up. the picture which emerges from Brighton is of a Government poised to introduce a whole range of social reforms — on incomes, social security. education and law -in parallel with its proposals for a wider measure of economic planning. The Government is desperately anxious for its motives to seem to be the best and is conscious of the fact that it has few allies among the Press and the commentators at a time when it is about to begin its really important policy battles with the Opposition, The Government is above all dependent on the self-discipline of its own supporters in Parliament. When Mr. Anthony Greenwood spoke on Saturday, he warned the Left that "None of us has a right to indulge our individual inclinations at the expense of the rest."
What role are the Catholic Labour M.P.s going to play in the work of the Government? Apart from those who are holding posts in the Administration — Lord Longford and Mr. Maurice Foley spring immediately to mind — there are a dosen or so members and their political attitudes fall for the most part, in the broad centre of the party.
They are "reformist" in character. Several arc known to he in favour of the abolition of capital punishment. and of the spread of the comprehensive principle in schools (including Catholic schools). On the international s:de, there is a feeling that the United Nations, while by no means free of the faults for which Catholics of the Right have criticised it. is the best guarantee of peace the world has, and should be supported as such,
This is the first time for 13 years that there has been a bloc of Catholic M.P.s so close in spirit to the heart of an ad ministration. In the last Government, Catholic members tended to he on the Right of the party and became known for adopting a Right-wing attitude on such specific issues as the process of change in Africa. The notable exception was Mr. Humphrey Berkeley, M.P. for Lancaster.
With Labour in power. members such as Maurice Foley or Shirley Williams, M.P. for Hitchin will. by virtue of their position at the Centre. be less in the public eye than their Conservative counterparts, but will probably contribute more to the policies implemented by the Government.