Thursday, 4 October 2012

Labour gain the momentum

Ed Miliband makes his brilliantly delivered speech at the conference. ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

So what’s the verdict on Labour? The conference had its highs and lows, and some very interesting statements and omissions for the politically interested to obsess over. As a fiercely independent, politically aware, middle-class young person who voted for the Liberal Democrats last election, I rather enjoyed being courted by Ed Miliband in his big ‘One Nation’ speech. Even the Telegraph had to admit, the speech was flawlessly delivered. Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail said Ed looked constipated in the way he walked around the stage. Others made flattering, but not especially welcome, comparisons to Tony Blair at his best.

If nothing else, Mr Miliband should get a big bounce in his personal polls, which hitherto have had him eating David Cameron’s dust, despite the crashing popularity of the PM’s party. Some may say he even looked Prime Ministerial. Certainly, Labour can begin to build some momentum from this, and why bother with policy specifics when the current government is so unpopular?

‘One Nation’ – the theme of Mr Miliband’s speech, seems a very blurry concept. Amongst all the opaque-ness there were a few specifics. There was the usual ‘we’ll put the ‘N’ back in NHS’ from Liam Byrne and ‘we won’t cut the police’ from Yvette Cooper, but there was also some genuinely new stuff too: Top of the list was undoubtedly Mr Miliband’s unveiling of the ‘Forgotten 50%’ policy – to plough money into vocational qualifications and private and public apprenticeship schemes. Not only is this badly needed, but it signals a break from New Labour’s focus on getting 50% of young people into university. Another was Mr Ball’s very good suggestion to spend the 4G windfall on new homes. The Coalition will be kicking themselves that they didn’t think of that first.

Both are also indicative of the finely balanced message of the conference. On the one hand, the party could not be too specific about what it would do in 2015, since no one knows what the state of the economy will be then. Yet neither could it ignore policy ideas entirely. ‘What we would do now if we were in government’ was therefore the middle ground. A nice bit of political manoeuvring if I do say so.

Yet when the conference finished, I was still left feeling a little unsatisfied - policy is still too thin on detail to come across credibly. ‘We’re conducting a policy review’ has become the stock detail-avoidance answer of Labour ministers recently, and this has to be improved.  On the penultimate day of the conference, the story broke that the Virgin vs FirstGroup rail franchise process had been torn up, and three civil servants suspended for supplying ministers with bad sums. Maria Eagle, Shadow Transport Secretary led the inevitable vanguard against her opposite number Patrick McLoughlin, who has redder roots than most in the Labour party. ‘Shambles’, ‘humiliation’ and ‘incompetence’ were words bounded about, but when the equally inevitable question came back, ‘we’re conducting a policy review’ was the go-to answer. Ms Eagle added that she always checked over the sums of the civil servants who worked for her.

©  Dave Thompson/PA Wire
Moreover, you can’t help but take ‘One Nationism’, that warm and fuzzy concept, with a pinch of salt when Unite union chief Len McLuskey begins and ends his speeches with ‘comrades’. The irony is almost cringe-worthy when a union leader refers to a Liberal-Conservative coalition as ‘ideologues’. Ed Balls was brave to stand up in front of the unions and say that he would not repeal the 1% wage increase cap. This will add to Labour’s economic credibility, but most other Labour ministers were all too eager to soak up the easy applause with a ‘no to cuts’ agenda.

Much of what was said was empty politicking. The beauty of being in opposition is that you don’t really have to be too detailed in what you say. But for all Labour’s criticism of Coalition indecisiveness and U-turns, it would have been refreshing for them to cut the crap and lay down a bit more of a blueprint.

As Martin Ivens has argued, it is perhaps in labour’s interest to remain a bit vague. With the current crisis and the Coalition’s lack of popularity, Labour could get in just on that. But across the Atlantic another (if entirely opposing) party is learning the lesson that an opponent’s economic record may not be quite enough to get you elected; especially when the opponent’s leader is more popular than yours.

Labour showed that they have some good ideas for getting the country moving again; it would just be nice to see more of them.

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