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Five Observations from the Labour Conference

Another week, another party conference. This time the newly rebranded ‘One Nation’ Labour conference in Manchester. Having given the conference-end renditions of ‘The Red Flag’ a miss and headed back to the ABI, here are five observations on where Labour now stands:

  1. Ed Miliband is in a better place. Like Mitt Romney in the US presidential debate this week, Ed Miliband’s delivery of his speech benefitted from exceeding the low expectations of the political classes. Delivering a fluent 65 minute keynote without notes took some guts and was an assertive statement by Mr Miliband that he has more skill than he is given credit for. The result is some much-needed respect from the political pundits which will buy him time – but will also raise the bar for his future performances.
  2. The Labour Party is determined to be united and disciplined. This is not the same as saying the Labour Party is united but it is certainly trying to be. The party is now being run by the political children of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and for the moment, both sets of damaged offspring are determined to avoid the worst horrors of their parents’ marriage. The party remains a very broad church, however, and beyond the need for discipline and unity it remains hard to find unifying themes between hardline trade unionists and market-friendly Blairites. 
  3. Labour has moved to the left. While the ‘One Nation’ slogan was accepted gratefully by all sections of the party as a unifying brand, it is undeniable that the party leadership and its core thinking has moved leftwards. Even the most pro-capitalist people in the Labour leadership think the financial crisis has shown up major flaws in the markets and the ever bigger pay gap between top and bottom is no longer just a talking point of the TUC. Expect the focus of Labour relations with business over the next two years to focus on what business can contribute to society to demonstrate ‘responsible capitalism’. 
  4. Labour still has an electoral mountain to climb. Ignore the headline polls and focus on the underlying data. Labour is still behind on all the most important ratings; ‘best PM’, ‘competent and capable’ and policy on the economy, welfare, crime and immigration. No party can win office if it is behind on all these metrics, even though it is closing the gap on all of them after a poor six months for the Government. If the Government starts to gain strength again, Labour may easily find itself rolling back down the mountain rather than climbing purposefully to the summit. 
  5. Labour needs some new policy. Labour is caught in a bind. Its leaders subscribe to President Clinton’s famous dictum that ‘progressive parties win when they talk about the future’, yet it is convinced that offering up early manifesto commitments will help the Conservatives build a 1992-style ‘tax bombshell’ critique, as well as giving the Coalition the chance to cherrypick the best policies to do themselves. This is a risk but so is a blank canvas which allows your opponents to define what you stand for and endlessly remind the electorate about the past. Labour urgently needs some policy momentum and could do better than spend the next year talking to businesses and communities to find out what sort of policies would galvanise the electorate in 2015. The big challenge is pricetag but you can’t weigh up value for money if you don’t examine the goods. The feelgood factor of the conference will soon dissolve for the party if it finds itself without anything positive to say on the big issues of the next few years.



Last updated 29/06/2016