Believe it or not, Labour’s party conference has finally ground to a halt. Here are the key lessons from the past six days in Manchester:
1. Ed Miliband is no longer a joke leader of the opposition. The Labour leader’s speech showed that he can now talk a good game, and even though much of that performance was no more than a good game, Miliband gave his party and voters a glimpse of the more authoritative figure that he has grown into over the past two years. It’s worth watching his speech to the 2010 autumn conference where he appeared completely floored by bursts of applause to see quite how far he has come.
2. Miliband is keen to paint himself not just as the anti-politics politician by embracing his inner geek – I understand that his advisers have decided that they should take a cue from Boris Johnson’s success at appearing comfortable in his own eccentric skin – but also as the man qualified to tell the nation that ‘we’re all in this together’. By stealing One Nation and the Big Society from the Conservatives, Miliband is trying to argue that David Cameron’s party can no longer talk about tackling inequality or communities working together.
3. Labour wants to make the 2015 general election about competence. This is extraordinarily audacious given the Brown years aren’t exactly a distant memory, but Miliband made a direct attack on the ‘miserable shower’ coalition government (which was more timely than he realised given the revelation the following day that the Transport department had messed up the West Coast Mainline franchise), and both he and Ed Balls have started to talk about the sort of economic inheritance a Labour government would face in 2015. Ed Balls also criticised government infighting in his speech, which again was curious given his own involvement in the vitriolic battles between Number 10 and the Treasury when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
4. But the Labour party’s current unity is partly a result of MPs having very little to disagree about. The hard times are definitely still on their way for the party, with the leadership refusing to address big questions about cuts to public services, welfare reform and education. When they do, they will find that the row which the unions have been threatening starts to flare up, and their own MPs wringing their hands about policies which they instinctively oppose. While Miliband is keen to argue he is his own man, he still thinks it important to attend the TUC’s anti-austerity demo this October. He’ll need more than one good speech to arm him against some of the fights he faces to ensure Labour actually appears credible when voters go to the polls.
5. Labour conference is too long. The leader’s speech used to come in the middle of conference so Tony Blair could rush back to London and make a big show that he was returning to run the country. Now everyone else makes a point of rushing back to London on the Wednesday, leaving only the very keen beans drifting about the secure zone on the Thursday. The programme itself winds down, too: there are fewer fringes on the Wednesday. This might change as we draw nearer to 2015: after all, there are only so many panel discussions with Jon Cruddas refusing to talk policy details that one Labour delegate can hack, but when the party actually has a wide range of policies to chew over, the days after the leader’s speech might feel a little more meaty. If Miliband is going to face real battles with membership and parliamentarians on key issues, he might want to move his speech to the end of conference to avoid giving journalists the opportunity they currently have of coaxing bitchy quotes from MPs in the hotel bars in the evening after he speaks.
Finally, Labour had two big weaknesses going into this conference: Ed Miliband and irresponsibility on spending. These six days in Manchester have helped with the former but not the latter. Indeed, Ed Miliband’s decision to attend the anti-cuts march will actually exacerbate that problem.