There are many reasons why Labour conference felt flat this year, and many of them are out of the party’s control.
It cannot help that its MPs and a number of its delegates are tired after an energetic Scottish campaign. It cannot help that the Scottish campaign saw a level of engagement in politics that cannot be replicated, save by another vote with a clear question and clear implications, and that would always have contrasted badly with the Labour conference. It cannot help that the referendum took place just days before the conference began, and that therefore it was impossible to get the same sort of coverage you’d expect in the run-up to your conference in the press. Even the Guardian, whose readers are more interested than most in the Labour party, put a news story on comments Ed Balls had made to the paper almost as far back in the news section as they’d go. The party cannot help the international situation, and even its role in responding to the British government’s position, when that is unveiled.
But there are a number of things that the party could help, and they were much more powerful than any of the confounding factors.
1. Ed Miliband’s poorly-delivered speech
The party leader’s decision to memorise, badly, his conference speech, was not the result of some international event or inconvenient timing (although perhaps his judgement was impaired by tiredness). It was the result of an unusual bout of overconfidence on the part of the Labour leader, and a misplaced faith that everything would be alright if he didn’t have a lectern in front of him, even if all those uncontrollables listed above meant he didn’t have the time or energy to memorise the speech properly.
2. Exposing the gaps in Miliband’s speech
Before the full draft of the leader’s speech was released, the story was that it was a bad speech. But the clumsy mistake of the Labour machine was to release the text as it should have been delivered, rather than as it was delivered. Doing this meant the story became Ed Miliband forgetting the deficit, even though the passages he omitted were hardly challenging stuff.
3. The neutering of the Shadow Cabinet
Today was the final day of conference, and it felt better than the others. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper gave fine speeches. The delegates seemed excited (although only three of them gave Miliband a standing ovation when he returned to the stage to introduce Bill de Blasio). But the rest of the week has felt very poor indeed. Coffee House revealed on Monday that the Shadow Cabinet were told they could only write speeches that were 700 words long, and there was a deliberate decision to clear the decks for Miliband’s speech which meant no-one else made an announcement before he appeared yesterday afternoon. It sucked the momentum out of the conference, made it more difficult for frontbenchers to appear purposeful, and left bored delegates in the conference hall. Before today, the only speech that really excited the hall was Len McCluskey’s address, and he isn’t in the shadow cabinet and will not form part of the next Labour government.
4. Ed Balls’ soft ‘Bad cop’ routine
If Ed Miliband wasn’t going to pay significant attention to the deficit in his speech, then Ed Balls should have played proper bad cop, rather than announcing two pretty weedy cuts that he claimed would show how tough things were going to be. If the Shadow Chancellor had properly challenged the conference, then Miliband could have energised them with some kind of reasoning about why they still wanted to go into government even though it’s going to be really tough.
The combination of these mistakes means that delegates are still holding their breath, both to find out how bad government is going to be, and to feel enthused about it. This was not a great rallying event, even though it was clearly addressed at Labour’s core vote.