The day after party conference is a day for, well, sleep to be honest – but it’s also an opportunity for reflection. It’s often said that there are two conferences each year – the one you attend, and the one the media write and broadcast about, and this year has been one of the best examples of that. Whilst outside of the conference centre debate raged about the importance of Damian McBride’s book, for example, inside the conference zone I barely heard his name. The disconnect between what people reporting on conference or watching it from afar thought was important in Brighton, and what was actually significant, is stark.
With that in mind – here’s a dozen things that I learned a Labour conference this week:
1) The policy genie is out of the bottle: Policies are like Pringles – once you pop you just can’t stop, and after years of complaints from malcontents (like me) that the party had no policies to take out onto the doorstep, we now have a glut of policies. A million new homes, the energy freeze, wraparound childcare, 100,000 new apprenticeships etc etc. And now that we have policies, those within the party who have been trying to keep things under wraps and play ‘steady as she goes’ have been somewhat shoved aside. Cruddas is already talking about further policies in the coming months as we told you yesterday – I think we’re finally passed the point of “what we would do if we were in government today” and into the realm of “what we would do in government”. Thank god.
2) Miliband can pick an enemy: Miliband has taken the fight to the energy companies, and those developers who sit on land rather than using it. Unsurprisingly they don’t like it up ‘em. Yet the British public, it turns out, view the energy companies in a very dim light indeed, according to recent YouGov polling. Unsurprisingly then, the party’s focus grouping of the energy freeze policy was off the charts. Miliband needs to ignore the blackmail of the energy companies (Blackouts? What will they threaten next, a three day week?) and the nay-saying of those who say this is a retrograde step (that means you Lord Mandelson). Energy prices are a key part of the cost of living crisis – and the companies involved behave like preadtors, not producers, to coin a phrase. The question is – who Ed Miliband’s next powerful enemies, who he can chalk up next to Murdoch and the energy companies before 2015?
3) Wednesday is dead – move the leaders speech: Wednesday used to still be a decent day at Labour conference, whilst Thursday was the graveyard shift, attended only by the die hards and the conference completists. Now that Thursday morning has been (mercifully) removed from the conference agenda, wednesday has become the new thursday. Conference hall wasn’t particularly full, and Brighton as a whole felt pretty empty yesterday. Most people seemed to have gone home on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. There’s a way to remedy this though – move the leader’s speech to Wednesday afternoon, and send everyone home from conference straight after. End on a high, rather than puttering to the end. (Although a special mention here should go to Monique from Labour HQ who provided a tremendous closing rendition of the red flag).
4) The party’s organisational discipline has improved: it has been a good conference for General Secretary Iain McNicol, with a renewed focus from Miliband on movement building and community organising. But perhaps the party’s most impressive feat was the energy freeze campaign. Not the campaign itself (although I think it has been done well) but that rolling out a print/digital/comms/policy/PPB campaign means over 100 party staffers (minimum) have to know about it and keep it under wraps. The full detail of the energy freeze didn’t leak until Miliband said it on Tuesday – that’s thanks to many people who worked hard, prepared a campaign and kept it to themselves. A particular nod should go to the expanded digital team – the increased resources and staffing that the party has given them showed through in the increased scale and quality of what they did at conference.
5) Labour conference is getting more interesting: Ed Miliband was splashed on 8 of the 9 national newspapers in the wake of his conference speech. Whether the coverage was positive or negative, he has the media’s attention, and perhaps – as early polls suggest a conference bounce for the party – the attention of the country too. Conference itself was a bit more interesting than recent years too, not just because of the policy announcements but because of the fringes too. LabourList had a great conference (sorry for the plug) with around 500 people attend our new conference rally, whilst Lord Ashcroft attended a Fabian fringe to talk about Labour’s chances of winning the next election. Whilst conference was at times a little too quiet and brisk (or professional, to be more positive) it did feel like a more serious operation this year.
6) The quiet rise of Angela Eagle: Angela Eagle has had a fantastic conference this year – and secured a real powerbase for herself in the party. Yet no-one outside of Brighton (and many of those in Brighton) might not have noticed. Eagle is now the chair of both Labour’s executive body the NEC and the party’s policy body the NPF. She also gave a series of well received speeches to conference, fringes and the gala dinner. Eagle’s star is rising – in the upcoming reshuffle she’s earned a promotion.
7) Votes on conference floor don’t matter – that must change: Votes at conference have become an even greater farce now than they already were. Conference can call for an end to the public sector pay freeze, keeping the post office public and taking the railways into public ownership – and the impact on what Labour’s actual policies are is negligible. The party respond to conference votes calling for new policies by saying that the NPF decides policy, but that’s often toothless too. What we’re left with is votes upon which energy is expended for limited benefit. Much heat but little light. The unions currently have 50% of the votes in these debates on conference floor, but at the moment that’s 50% of diddley squat. It might be worth them taking a smaller percentage of something worth having in future years – and a debate around that could well be part of the Collins Review, which brings us to…
8) We’re having a row on party reform, but a private one, and not yet: The stage was set on Sunday morning for an almighty row over the first report of the “Collins Review” into party reform. But in the end that row never really came. There was no desire whatsoever either from the party, the leader’s office or the unions to make this conference about party reform. That’s what Miliband’s somewhat maligned spring conference (on March 1st) will be about. So we’re not having a row on party reform, yet, and Miliband’s eye-catching performance at conference will set him in better stead to negotiate in good faith with Labour’s affiliates for a lasting deal. But the rows will certainly come between now and March. Thankfully though, they’re likely to be relatively private. The last thing the party needs right now is a constitutional firework display.