Some observations from Labour Conference in Manchester

It’s a shame Ed Miliband doesn’t read this blog

I wrote last year that it was time to step behind the lectern and concentrate on the content, not the rote learning. It’s not clear where Ed Miliband can go after forgetting a large part of this year’s speech. Return to an autocue and the apparently ad-lib performances will seem like failure; carry on and news teams will be more interested in speech stagecraft and potential mistakes rather than content.

Was everyone tired, or were they just more serious?

It’s become received wisdom that the Conference was flat because ‘everyone was tired after Scotland’. Maybe it was just the commentators who were tired (even though I largely agree with the first substantive paragraph in this Spectator article by Isabel Hardman). Personally, I thought the atmosphere was serious. Labour delegates know they can’t be complacent about the election next year – especially given the warnings from Scotland – but in any case how much fun will it be running the UK after 2015? Centre-left parties like spending or at least redistributing money and as we all know, there’s none to spare. Discussions were about serious policy and about beating the other parties including Ukip (see below), not just about personalities.

Standing room only at a discussion on combating Ukip
Standing room only at a discussion on combating Ukip

The Hall didn’t help

It’s always assumed that the main Hall is filled with the party faithful, especially for the Leader’s speech, but you also get interlopers like me who are actually representing their organisation. Last year, I watched Ed Miliband’s speech in the Brighton Odeon together with other ne’er-do-wells and the atmosphere was very different from that in the main hall. This year, the conference hall was large enough to preclude strict choreographic stage-management. A smaller, more intimate venue would have provided a more passionate audience. And it would have meant that the Andrew Neil show would have got more partisan vox pops than some idiot saying Miliband’s speech was ‘solid’.

Labour hasn’t given up on business…

Fringe events on topics such as business rates were full. Indeed, two neighbouring business-related events (one of which was run by the FSB which is not known for its lefty-ness) were so packed they were turning people away. It was interesting to see the CBI welcome Labour’s pledges on immigration.

…but Ed Miliband’s speech was thin on the economy

We know why there was no mention of the deficit, but some of the proposals, such as equal rights for the self-employed, needed more detail. That’s a serious gap that needs filling. More recent news means that the Tories’ Grant Shapps has other things on his mind than finding South American countries to compare Labour’s economic policies with, but a party serious about running the economy well (so it can do the redistribution stuff) and which knows it isn’t really trusted on the issue needs to be really clear about its plans.

I’m uneasy about picking on certain industries

Yes, smoking is bad but tobacco production is legal. I’m not sure I like the precedent of going after people who have made profits doing legal things. There have always been ‘sin’ taxes but they have been levied on consumers, to change their behaviour, rather than on the producers.

The party’s behind Ed

I couldn’t find anyone who wished for different leadership. The party knows the score – there were some very uncomfortable moments when MORI’s Bob Worcester presented some extremely negative findings about Ed Miliband among the public at large. Labour activists aren’t hankering after their party’s recent neo-liberal past. There is no call, either for International Rescue or for its president (David Miliband, not Jeff Tracy) to take over.

Labour knows it has a Ukip problem

One of the highlights of Conference was a very passionate discussion about what makes Ukip voters tick and what the Labour party should do about it. My sense was that activists on the ground don’t need to be told there’s a problem because they’re already trying to work against it. The mood of the meeting was also about taking Ukip on by reaching out to disaffected voters rather than writing off people who are flirting with Nigel Farage, Douglas Carswell and (as of today) Mark Reckless.

Off to Birmingham tomorrow…

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