The political commentariat is confused about Miliband’s speech, not to mention the conference itself. Opinions seem to range from triumph to disaster, although the “disaster” ones seem to be mostly of the Daily Mail’s “red menace in our society” variety.
And that’s not surprising, as both speech and conference were good in parts. But that’s not the whole story, as we shall see.
The conference, for a start, did at least start naming some policies and Ed Balls did start to recognise – up to a point – that Labour would need to be ruthless on spending and therefore each pledge was meticulously costed. And there is the understanding that Labour will need to stick to Tory spending limits, if only for one year rather than the three that Labour stuck to from 1997.
But this is all without mentioning the elephant in the room: that the economy is, albeit agonisingly slowly, starting to recover where Balls has spent almost three years suggesting (if not actually saying) that this might never happen, so disastrous was Osborne’s handing of the economy. It is recovering, and if there is a major barrier between Miliband and Number Ten, it surely lies in Balls’ department.
And then Miliband’s speech: while it took a while to warm up and there were some cringeworthy moments such as the bathos over “our boys” in action, the delivery was mostly good. Miliband shamelessly took the advice of the man who has been criticising him regularly of late, Peter Mandelson, and debuted a slogan, “Britain can do better than this”, which bears a rather striking resemblance to “Britain deserves better”, with which we won in 1997.
The policies announced were winners on the doorstep, even if the implementation is open to question. The energy company price freeze was a fine piece of populism (you can always tell when Labour has pulled off a political coup, because right-leaning sections of the press start to splutter). It seems since to have been copied, not just by the energy companies themselves, but the Tories’ Michael Gove, as John Rentoul points out.
Finally, the peroration section of the speech, where dividing lines were set out between what Labour and Tory parties would do, reminded people of the times when Cameron had been on the side of the many against the few:
When it was Murdoch versus the McCanns, he took the side of Murdoch. When it was the tobacco lobby versus the cancer charities, he took the side of the tobacco lobby. When it was the millionaires who wanted a tax cut versus people paying the bedroom tax, he took the side of the millionaires.
Emotive, yes. Populist, yes. But undeniably true. It was Miliband’s own little “forces of conservatism” speech (although this time the forces of conservatism within his own party and the labour movement weren’t included).
All that said, there remain serious doubts about implementation. One wonders how a price freeze would be implemented: there is clearly a temptation to compare it with Gordon Brown’s one-off “windfall tax” on privatised utilities, and I’m not sure it’s the same. And if it were that easy to build 200,000 new homes in an area where people actually wanted them to be built, wouldn’t someone surely have done it by now? A smart Cameron will simply steal the best bits of the populism and carry on as before.
More than that, perhaps, was the feeling the whole conference left in one’s stomach. Just as the thumping music came 0n a second too soon and too loud at the end of the speech, one was left with the feeling that we had rushed on too soon, glossed over; move along, nothing to see here.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that there was really very little about the critical piece of party reform and the relationship between Labour and the uions, indeed the subject merited only a single paragraph in Miliband’s speech. Nothing about the special conference to be held in March to agree the proposals. No big punch-up with the affiliated unions, apart from a rather grumpy speech from the GMB’s Paul Kenny on the Sunday.
In the fringes and in the bars, however, a different story was to be heard. Worry about the fallout from the proposals is to be expected, necessary though they are: this is probably the biggest-ever structural change in a century-old party, after all.
But there were also signs of how the story of Unite’s (alleged) intervention in the Falkirk selection was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of where that relationship is headed, something I will write about shortly.
And that was when it dawned on me: the real conference was not last week’s. It’s in six months’ time.