The Party Conferyawns

A graphic depicting not least the heart rate of conference-goers this year.

David Cameron, looking tired and not a little strained, dutifully took to the stage at the Conservative party conference yesterday and proceeded to handwave for a while. “Our plan is right,” he insisted in reference to his government’s economic policy. “And our plan will work. I know you can’t see it or feel it yet.” He went on to describe the plan as similar to, you guessed it, building a house: “The most important part is the part you can’t see – the foundations that make it stable.” In the absence of detail or even underpinning logic, listening to this section of the speech resembled sitting through a sermon: the evidence of God’s existence is everywhere, oh ye faithful. It’s just invisible.

The week before, Ed Miliband hadn’t fared much better: “The tragedy of Britain is that it is not being met,” he intoned. “My mission. Our mission. To fulfil the promise of each so we fulfil the promise of Britain.” This sort of clumsy phrase-making marred and muddied a speech which some have characterised as wildly left-wing but which was in truth less coherent than a piece in the New Statesman by Miliband’s ex-speechwriter. Cameron had a finer turn of phrase, but the hollowness and timidity at the heart of his speech was also what, ironically, make Miliband’s sound scarier and more off-piste. There may be a bone to flesh in the latter’s speech, but all was thin gruel this past month. There has been a wooliness about the conference season that is symptomatic of a political class without the courage to spell out their nascent responses to dumbfounding events.

Even following Miliband’s mincing repositioning, it’s hard to argue with Dave Osler that the poor don’t have a party: each political tribe, and Cameron chases Miliband even as he mocks him (for instance on the division between predatory and productive businesses Tories had been lampooning all week), have focused on the squeezed middle. The problem, of course, is that the longer our political leaders opt to be mealy-mouthed the more likely it is that many more of us will be poor. They spent the last three weeks desperately trying to ensure nothing actually happened – a boo here, a catflap there were treated as cataclysms. There is much worse to come, and as Steve Richards so rightly comments today, no evidence in rhetoric or deed that we’ll have an answer when it does.

Perception is Reality, Neophyte

Ed's media strategy has become more complex.

Over the weekend, it was increasingly easy to tell that the Labour Party have invested in some press people. In December, Ed Miliband appointed two stalwart political journalists, Bob Roberts and Tim Baldwin, to his communications team, and their effect is already being felt: it’s not, frankly, that Miliband is saying much of anything that is different or new; it’s simply that he’s having more success in getting the messages placed. From his Fabian Society speech on Saturday to the continued positive coverage of the Oldham by-election victory, Labour are punching about their weight in column inches. Not all those inches are favourable – Melanie Philips today does her usual turn on the subject of Miliband’s supposed turn towards small-c conservatism – but, at a time when the Coalition are being talked about largely in the negative (either from the right or the left), this breadth of coverage is no bad thing.

They are being helped along by a Coalition agenda tottering under its own weight; appearing on the Today programme this morning, David Cameron was unsure on Coulson and under-briefed on the looming fight over the NHS. Nick Clegg, meanwhile, continues to get a bad press. Even Fraser Nelson has to admit it’s going well for the reds. Those rumours, repeated on This Week by Jon Cruddas, of an early General Election in May start to look more tempting from a Conservative standpoint.

After all, the news from Oldham East and Saddleworth was not all good: yes, Lib Dem voters switched to Labour; but Conservative voters switched to the Lib Dems in considerable numbers, and the net impact was, despite an increased Labour majority, a slightly increased Lib Dem share of the vote. That this still wasn’t enough to tip a majority of 103 towards Clegg’s party is a bad sign for them; but any nascent political union between the two Coalition parties is more worrying still for Labour. If, given time, Tories choose to vote for Lib Dems in other marginals, Labour will lose seats; whether Lib Dems will do the same for Tories, of course, remains an open question. Unfortunately for the yellows, of course, most of their own seats are Tory marginals – and it’s difficult to say how comfortable Labour voters will now feel in voting tactically.

So the picture is confused – not least because the AV referendum may now be delayed. But what is increasingly clear is that Labour – ahead in the latest polls by some distance – now have at least some space to make their counter-weight felt. Tactical nous is not strategic victory, however – and the party’s platform remains somewhat dazed and confused. A job for heavy lifting in the background, to be sure – but it means the Coalition yet retains the real, rather than the perceived, initiative.

Mr Ed

Hi, kids!

Ed Miliband has spent his leadership campaign posing as the trendy supply teacher – all informal authority and ideas attractive but somehow received, for which he has a great deal of enthusiasm but possibly not the skill to implement. Having given the supply teacher a permanent contract, Labour now get to see whether he’s as good at the daily grind as he is at letting the kids off the toughest homework; even more so, the awkward kid at the back of the room who was most keen on the teacher can now expect a bit of discipline from Mr M, just to show who’s now boss.

That awkward kid, of course, represents the unions, whose members gave Miliband the leadership on the waferiest of wafer-thin majorities – 50.65 to 49.75. The post-1980 federal electoral college has delivered tight results like this before (think Healey-Benn), but never has it seen a victorious candidate lose both the MPs and party members. This makes the job of my party’s new leader more difficult than it might have been – his enemies will have a ready-made line of attack, however disingenuous, and in the coming years a potentially arid dividing line between cutters and cutted must be avoided.

Not, you’ll understand, that a member who voted for Ed Balls would accuse Ed Miliband of being too left-wing – if anything, quite the opposite. Miliband’s conversion to cuddly leftism hasn’t quite convinced me, as long-term readers will know, and what Roy Hattersley is calling the new leader’s “gentle and joyous philosophy” will require a good deal more grit if it is to carry a general election. Matthew D’ancona trots out all the emerging right-wing talking points in his latest column, but is on to something when he casts the Leader of the Opposition as a preacher rather than a persuader.

Another always astute commentator, Steve Richards, this week fingered Vince Cable, who had a fairly disastrous joint appearance with John Redwood on Question Time this week (followed, on Friday, by a ranty Chris Huhne on Any Questions), as the Coalition’s cover man par excellence. Labour’s job must be to have no truck with empty leftie populism, but to espouse certain and credible alternatives to the true programme of the government. Ed Miliband spoke a lot about making Labour a movement again. This requires uniting and providing practical purpose to the party, and that would go a long way to capitalising on the clear lack of public enthusiasm for the Coalition’s direction of travel. Maybe the party, which predates my membership by some considerable distance, knows better than I do after all …

Labour Leadership: Crunch Time

The dilemma for the Labour party member in voting for their next leader has been simple: does one vote for success, or for purity? Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, in their most recent leadership elections, voted for success: neither Cameron nor Clegg hail from the most dominant wings of their party, yet both seemed to promise electoral gain. They now share power (though Nick shares more than Dave), and thus the experiment – like the last Labour contest, way back in 1994 – was a success. How, though, to respond to the new politics? Pick a champion  of Labour values, or a potential Prime Minister?

The choice is not so stark: three of the candidates (Ed B, Ed M, and David M) could make passable claims to offering both. But the elder Miliband places the emphasis on being a readymade PM, and the younger on championing Labour values (many of which observers may have missed he previously held); Ed Balls is the most interesting of the three, in the sense that he has blossomed during this contest more than any other – developing his arguments and harrying the government, he has emerged as not just a credible leader but also the only prominent politician offering a narrative other than the one established by the Tories (and Jonathan Freedland is right that this is the urgent task facing Labour).

Consequently, and in the absence of a clear perfect candidate, today I took the radical step of placing my first preference simply for the candidate who has fought the best campaign. And here are the words I could not possibly have predicted writing in May: that was Ed Balls. Not a single poll suggests he has much of a chance of winning – although he’s second choice amongst former MPs – so my hope remains that, between the Milibands, it’ll be the firstborn that wins. Much like many of Ed M’s own supporters, it’s clear to me he’d be the better leader of the two.

You’ll be pleased to read that I won’t bore you with where my Treasurer, NEC and NPF votes went.

The Briar Patch

In happier days.

Labour Party members this week await with baited breath their leadership ballots. In less than a month, we’ll know the identity of the new Labour leader, and it is therefore no great surprise that the mainstream media has suddenly started taking notice. The papers were full this week of claim and counter-claim from the various camps (although Burnham’s and Abbott’s remain curiously silent). Most notably, the right-wing press has been having its say, and making not a little mischief: in the Sunday Telegraph today, Matthew d’Ancona encourages Labour to vote for their own Dave; anonymous Tory sources have been briefing the Guardian’s Nicholas Watt that Cameron is practically quaking in his boots at the prospect of facing the elder Miliband; and at the Spectator’s Coffee House, Fraser Nelson adds to the emerging Tory consensus that the only man for Labour is the former foreign secretary.

Nelson is honest enough in his piece to admit that, however under-reported the contest has been, it remains acutely relevant: Labour retain too many seats to be discounted as a political force. Indeed, going on precedent, it would be more unusual for them to lose the next election that it would be strange for them to win it. This alone makes one pause when considering the right-wing noises: do they really believe David Miliband is the best leader the party has to offer, or do they fear another in their secret moments, talking up the nobbled favourite in an attempt to ensure a cakewalk?

This was certainly Sunny Hundal’s view, and it’s gratifying to think that Labour remain such a fighting force that the Coalition puts such time and energy into fixing its leadership race. But Hundal’s belief that Cameron truly fears the younger Miliband seems to me wishful thinking. Ed’s article in the Observer today is thin gruel indeed: he’ll make capitalism work for the people; he’s for wealth creation as well as redistribution; the environment, about which he was once so passionate, merits an afterthought of a sentence; he attacks (rightly) the Coalition for having no plan for growth, but his own seems to consist largely of platitudes about diversifying the industrial base. None of these ‘policies’ – more properly, platitudes – is aimed at anything more than winning the Labour leadership; it isn’t a credible programme for opposition, let alone government – and feels in some way confected, to boot.

Compare this with Ed Balls’s speech to Bloomberg, also delivered in this week of increasingly targeted attacks amongst the candidates: Balls’s campaign slogan has become ‘There is an alternative’, ostensibly referring to the dreary Coalition consensus, but in truth surely aimed at voters thinking Labour is now a subsidiary of Miliband Bros. “Adopting the consensus view,” he argues, “may be the easy and safe thing to do, but it does not make you right and, in the long-term, it does not make you credible.” This is an obvious attack on David Miliband’s campaign, but it is supported by a depth of reference and policy which beats Ed Miliband into a cocked hat. Balls, however, remains hostage to his unbreakable alliance with Gordon Brown, and has little chance of winning.

David Miliband, meanwhile, was never a true fellow traveller of Tony Blair’s – described by the ex-PM as his Wayne Rooney in the dying days of the Blair premiership, Miliband was nevertheless replaced as soon as practicable as head of Numb er 10’s Policy Unit by the true Blairite, Andrew Adonis. He escapes, therefore, easy attachment to destructive factionalism. It’s in one way to his credit, however, that he hasn’t attempted to wash his hands of the government of which he was such a prominent part. With or without the support of Jon Cruddas, however, and laudable grassroots focus aside, can Labour afford to elect be led by another politician in favour of the Iraq War, or one who communicates in the same technocratic language the electorate have so clearly come to despise?

The decidedly cuddlier Ed Miliband currently seems a compromise between the likeable-but-sullied David and the combative-but-comprehensive Balls. But he is the sort of compromise which feels watered down rather than balanced out. We have a government whose supporters condemn the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a pinko outfit as soon as it disagrees with them (even Nick Clegg had a go); it’s even unkind to animals. Its approval rating dipped into the negative this week. Labour needs a leader who can capitalise on that: Sunder Katwala has some timely thoughts on not buying the usual right-wing warnings about alienating the ‘middle’, and the question is whether the siren voices on the right are playing canny or straight when they say David Miliband is the best man for the job. Alistair Campbell, for it is he, has his own thoughts on this topic. But whatever the case, the left shouldn’t elect his as yet under-developed brother just to be ornery.

Over A Barrel: George Osborne’s First Budget

"Look, ma - no proles!"

“Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.” If a quote from a figure in the new Tory (sorry, Coalition) administration has revealed more about the way in which it conceives the world, I’ve yet to find it. Quoted in today’s Telegraph, Richard Balfe explains the government’s approach to public sector negotiation. Mr Balfe is – ha – David Cameron’s envoy to the unions, and his position is simple: pensions will be used as a cosh with which to force unions to accept the swingeing cuts (£100bn over 5 years) George Osborne announced in this week’s Budget. We’re not so much all in this together as all under the same thumb.

This week’s Budget still didn’t please everyone on the right – two blogs at The Spectator, one from Andrew Haldenby and another from Matthew Sinclair, expressed early on the insatiable lust on the right for unravelling the state. But coverage from the Tory press was largely swooning – the Torygraph’s sketchwriter, Andrew Gimson, has never been quite so panting, for instance. Indeed, it’s hard to see the Liberal Democrat influence in the programme detailed by Osborne – one might emphasise the rise in Capital Gains Tax, except that it is so woefully far from being in line with income taxation that it makes a better argument for the strength of Tory backbenchers. If you were so minded, you might also point to the lift in the lowest rate of income tax. Certainly, Clegg was tugging his forelock in gratitude in the chamber. But this is small recompense for the party and its supporters.

Certainly, Cameron has made it known that, when he goes on holiday in August and on paternity leave in September, he won’t be continuing the ‘carry-on’ of Prescott taking over from Blair. Nick will not be let anywhere near the levers of state, whilst his erstwhile deputy, Vince Cable, will be sent on to the first BBC Question Time following the Budget to defend the indefensible. Cable was a sorry figure on Thursday night, all downcast gaze and half-hearted, irritable retorts. The audience gave him a much rougher time than they did Ed Balls, who turned in a pretty creditable performance which will help his profile in the Labour leadership race. The hapless Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, meanwhile, was let loose on Newsnight on the evening of the Budget to be comprehensively bested by, of all people, Liam Byrne. The Liberal Democrats are providing inimitable political cover, but what are they getting in return if not power and influence?

Because you don’t have to take David Miliband’s word for it – the Institute for Fiscal Studies made it plain that this Budget will hurt the poorest hardest. It’s no great surprise that Simon Hughes has already indicated he might vote against the rise in VAT – Liberal Democrats representing constituencies like his, from Sarah Teather to Lynne Featherstone, will be loath to cut benefits, freeze wages, and raise VAT. If they don’t, Hopi Sen’s mischievous theory will surely be the only one which fits all the facts.

Leadership In Labour

It's great to see Cambridge represented, too, isn't it?

I’ve already had a couple of people ask how I’ll vote in the Labour leadership election. It’s worth noticing the coverage that contest is receiving – Labour remains relevant, and worth taking seriously, in a way that the Tories were not in 1997. Their contest of that year, ultimately a battle between William Hague and Kenneth Clarke, was reported much more as a sideshow, a comedy of errors. The Labour leadership election of 2010, whilst very much second fiddle to the Coalition’s emerging (though still confused) governing agenda, is not comparable.

All of which makes David Miliband’s last minute decision to sponsor Diane Abbott’s candidacy a curious kind of charity. This contest matters – it is serious – and to so publicly endorse a candidate with little serious hope of winning, and even less of being an electable Prime Minister-in-waiting, is an inward-looking gesture at a time when the party is desperate still to appear engaged with the outside world.

But Miliband the Elder must look inward. He is a man the general public overwhelmingly see as the heir apparent; the Labour faithful, however, are less enamoured. They are attracted to his younger brother, Ed, because he is less implicated in the worst excesses of the New Labour years, but also because he has hit on the comforting language of the ‘movement’. David, too, talks about rebuilding the party and encouraging the leaders of tomorrow – but he must also actively convince the rank and file that he cares about them. His nomination of Abbott is one way of doing that.

The appearance of tokenism that this risks might have given him pause: Abbott is of course both black and a woman, and without Miliband’s support, and that of others who have declared they won’t actually vote for her (Harriet Harman, Jack Straw), she could not have made the hustings. But her main value is in forcing the debate onto issues which may otherwise have been ignored, or ones onto which false narratives may have otherwise been imposed. She will get cheers at the hustings – and this will be cathartic for a membership which have not been consulted about their leader for 16 years. As a grassroots organisation, the Labour Party is shrivelled – this is why the candidates for leader are so uniform. Part of the point of Abbott is to allow stifled opinion to be heard, to be consulted. This is a Good Thing, though Abbott herself, or the circumstances of her nomination, may not be. It remains of prime importance, however, that whoever ultimately wins must now – having secured such a visible symbol of progress within the party – ensure that Abbott’s elevation to the ballot is not merely symbolic. Work will need to be done not just on engaging the left of the party, but encouraging the greater representation of both women and ethnic minorities.

So who will I vote for? David Miliband is impressive and experienced, of course – I like how he communicates, and his intellectual approach. But his language is perhaps too technocratic compared with his brother’s. Ed, however, feels to me very much a candidate of the party – interested in reforming and restructuring without a truly coherent expression of the ends to which those efforts are directed. Ed Balls has far clearer policy positions – and is making a good fist of being a substantive, combative figure – but unfortunately those positions have so far been more populist than considered. Labour will not simply by bashing immigrants outflank the Coalition amongst working class Tories.

Which leaves the wild cards, Abbott and Burnham. Abbott is playing to the gallery, and doing it well – but whether she has a coherent plan, or indeed an extant team behind her, is at best unclear. Burnham, meanwhile, has a compelling pitch – good both on principles of policy and personal narrative – but lacks any kind of presentational flair or charisma.

None of which, of course, gets any of us any further towards having a solid opinion on who might be best for Labour. What is best for Labour, however – an outward-looking, internally cleansing, long debate – may well have already been achieved. We can but hope: the UK can ill afford in 2010 the risibly inept Opposition of the late 1990s.