22 Sep 2013

Ed’s many challenges at the Labour conference

The tasks facing the Labour Party in Brighton this week are huge. Ed Miliband has to restore his authority after a disastrous summer, in which the Conservatives have gradually whittled Labour’s once-strong lead down to almost nothing.


His big speech is on Tuesday, and the pressure is now on to produce a speech at least as powerful as his Disraeli One Nation speech in Manchester last year, which was one of the best leader’s speeches at any conference in recent years.

Clear policies, clear identity

But words and speeches aren’t enough. With 20 months to go before the election, Labour has produce some decent meat from its long-standing Policy Review. Remember the jibe the other day by the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith that it was like the Edinburgh panda – everybody knew it was there, but nobody was confident it would happen.

Labour this week must not only come up with a substantial block of new policies, covering every subject area, but the party also needs memorable, striking measures that help define what “New Nation Labour” stands for, and demonstrates how the party is different from both the Coalition parties, and the New Labour party of Blair and Brown.

True, we’ve already had several policy titbits this weekend – on scrapping the so-called ‘bedroom tax’, on the minimum wage, on apprenticeships and on primary school childcare. But none of them so far made one say “Wow, that’s interesting. None are likely to grasp voters’ imaginations and help tell them what Ed Miliband’s new One Nation Labour is.


Funny money or serious economy?

A huge part of changing perceptions will fall to Ed Balls in his speech tomorrow where he has to beef up and redirect the party’s economic policy in the light of recent developments. First, the British economy seems finally to have found growth again, and second, the public, according to polls, now think the Conservatives are much more competent than Labour when it comes to handling the economy – by a margin of 38 per cent to 20 per cent according to yesterday’s poll for Channel 4 News by Ipsos Mori. History shows that economic competence is a key component in deciding how people vote.

And Labour has quickly to scotch the Tory accusation that their new promises will mean a £27bn black hole in the nation’s finances. Otherwise the party’s shadow chief secretary risks becoming known as the “funny money” Rachel Reeves, on top of the unfortunate description by some media person that she was “boring snoring” in a TV appearance. (And can Reeves do or say anything this week to overcome that hugely damaging and memorable description?)

Ghosts from the past

The party has to try and distance itself, too, from the extraordinary feuds and chicanery of the Blair-Brown era, which have been so shockingly exposed by the serialisation of Damian McBride’s new book. That’s no easy task when several of Labour’s most senior figures – Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband himself were players alongside McBride in the Gordon Brown bunker. What did they know of his activities? If they claim they knew nothing, they risk disbelief. If they admit they did know, the question arises of what they did to stop McBride and his activities.

Amidst the headlines of the last few days, the big Labour story of the summer, and which dominated the TUC two weeks ago, seems suddenly to have been forgotten almost. That’s Ed Miliband’s controversial proposals to reform Labour’s links with the unions, replacing the old system whereby unions affiliated hundreds of thousands of their members automatically, with a system where members of the 15 affiliated unions are only signed up with their positive consent. But I imagine the unions will be pretty well-behaved on this in Brighton this week, especially as the biggest union, Unite, broadly supports what Ed Miliband is trying to do (though the GMB and Unison are vehemently opposed).

On the fringe, the highlight of the week could be Lord (Michael) Ashcroft at a Fabian Society meeting. This isn’t the first time the former Tory Treasurer and mega donor and lender has been seen flirting with Labour people. Ashcroft has fallen out with the Cameron regime, so perhaps Labour should try to tap him for a donation, or at least a substantial loan. There’s not the slightest possibility of Ashcroft defecting, of course, but he seems to be behaving like an angry spouse who openly flirts with other people as a deliberate snub and warning to their partner.

New faces

With a front-bench reshuffle in the offing, expect great attention-seeking from ambitious MPs and junior ministers. Liz Kendall and Stella Creasy seem to be the next wave of stars from the cohort of 2010, after Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves. My other tips for promotion: Owen Smith, Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Andrew Gwynne, Seema Malhotra and Lucy Powell. These are off the top of my head, so I’m bound to have omitted several obvious other names.

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