A pretty good conference Ed, but neglect your party at your peril

by Rob Marchant

It’s been a pretty good conference. It started on Sunday with both Miliband and Balls saying sensible, pleasingly non-contradictory things on splitting the banks and a bottom-up spending review (if only Harriet Harman had got the memo).

If we merely smile patiently at Len McCluskey’s “throw out the Blairites” sabre-rattling, and nod appreciatively at Miliband’s firmness in rebutting them, there was really only one cloud on Sunday’s horizon: the mad decision – for it is difficult to describe it as anything else – by the party to extend the quotas in its already-contorted selection processes for MPs. A bewildered delegate might have been forgiven for having missed the part where it was proven beyond doubt that their usually painfully right-on party was systematically trying to block gay, disabled and working class people from being candidates. But more of that later.

Balls on Monday was on good form, doing everything in his power to look like a Brown Mk I Iron Chancellor rather than a flare-wearing tax-and-spender from the 70s: perhaps less policy specifics than we might like, but a solid, combative performance nevertheless.

Then yesterday there was the very smart enlisting of Seb Coe to spread a bit of Olympic love, with the added benefit of leaving an impression that was centrist, non-partisan and statesmanlike. And finally there was the speech. It could have been a repeat of last year’s conference: a much-mocked, divisive and rather inward-looking speech – it wasn’t. Yes, it was occasionally cheesy, but it was a Miliband far more at ease with himself. He isn’t great with a teleprompter, but he really was without notes.

It was a speech which reached out to country rather than party; which tapped the Danny Boyle moment of the Olympics opening ceremony; and which rather effectively rubbed salt in Cameron’s wounds. It was the speech of a man who has woken up halfway into a parliamentary term and realised that if he is serious about winning, then he needs to, er, get serious about winning.

It was low on policy, admittedly, and that could yet be a problem – the next one will be eighteen months from an election. But it was a hugely more assured delivery, and that counted for a lot. Most of all, with its blue background, its quoting of Disraeli and its one nation theme – the imagery all screamed “centre ground”, a clear pre-requisite for looking like a prime minister.

After all, as Paul Richards cleverly noted, Disraeli is what Miliband wants to be – a British, Jewish PM.

At last: the penny-drop realisation of what many of us have been patiently repeating for the last two years: you do not have to be a quasi-Tory to believe that it is essentially Tory, and not Liberal, switchers who will win Labour an election. A very good speech, and perhaps even a great one.

In fact, the whole conference nicely gave the lie to what the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh said about Miliband’s party on Monday morning: that it was “irrelevant, pointless and doomed”. But, two-and-a-half years in, where does that all leave us? In good shape, or is it true that, as Matthew Norman suggests, our “half-time lead counts for nothing”?

Well, yes and no. We are in the game now whereas, a year ago, we really weren’t. But if you want to be prime minister, you need to cover a few bases. You need a credible policy programme. A credible front bench team behind you. An electoral machine capable of maximising your support in the country. And people need to be able to connect with you, visualise you as Prime Minister, but even that can be worked on (it’s practice, like everything: Harold Wilson, who became renowned for his wit, was famously “not funny” as a junior politician).

But there is a but,. Kavanagh was quite right about one thing: the state of his party is one of the biggest things which stands between Miliband and Number 10, if only he could see it. All the others he is aware of, and mostly trying to address. But not this.

Kavanagh calls it “the seething discontent at the very heart of his party”, and that’s not quite right either. Labour, at the moment is not visibly disunited. In fact, it is surprisingly together, considering it recently suffered a bruising defeat. The issue is the dark clouds on the horizon. The issue is the work we have left undone.

On 2 May 1997, as Phil Wilson MP has famously observed, the party stopped reforming itself. Peter Mandelson noted the same in 2010. Today, fifteen years after the landslide, it still hasn’t restarted. Oh yes, we’ve had Refounding Labour, which tinkered ineffectually with our party structures.

But it is a vital point that the party has consistently failed to grasp: parties need to constantly reinvent themselves, or die. You have an opportunity now to remake the party, or at least focus on its health, which will last you through a long period of government to the next period of opposition, when you will have the time and space to do it again.

But the leadership is asleep to the penetration of the far left into small parts of the party but much larger parts of the union movement. It is asleep to the risk it runs when some of its own parliamentarians run with extremists. It is asleep to the terrible racial politics that Labour plays in our inner cities, or the slow-burning decay of the party in Scotland.

And it is asleep to the deleterious effect that its own daft selection processes, whose problems suddenly multiplied last Sunday, are going to have on its future pool of candidates. The conference, in fact, is a microcosm of this phenomenon: focus on the politics, hope the party will take care of itself.

If you come from the burgeoning class of the professional politician, the special-adviser-made-MP rather than the rank and file, it’s easy to see the party as merely as a machine to get you into government. It’s easy to think these are dull, organisational issues. They’re not. The party is a living, breathing thing, and it’s your number one priority in opposition, because without it, you’re nothing.

The question is whether this party can be held together with bits of string, without a major disaster, until the next opportunity in five, ten years? Or will we make it into government, and then disintegrate in front of everyone, like happened with Callaghan, after Wilson lost his battle for reform in the late 1960s? Or will we simply never make it into government, because our party shot itself in the foot before we ever reached 2015?

Each generation has one opportunity to reform the party: in this one, it’s an opportunity as yet ungrasped. To strengthen it, and to stop those who would destroy it. As we slowly zero in on that election, the window is closing.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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2 Responses to “A pretty good conference Ed, but neglect your party at your peril”

  1. Ray_North says:

    Interesting how the right-wing reacted with their usual stuff and nonsense, the left wing hailed it, but the Blairites have carped about Ed Miliband’s speech. We’ve analysed the response of the Blairite wing of the Labour party in the following piece: http://www.allthatsleft.co.uk/2012/10/ed-milibands-speech-what-is-it-with-the-blairites/#comments

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ray_North: You clearly haven’t read the piece. I thought the speech was very good.

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