by GK Strategy 7th October, 2013

Labour Conference Round-Up

“Britain Can Do Better Than This”: Labour Ready for a Fight?

As the dust settles on the Labour Party Annual Conference in Brighton, party activists and the public have been left questioning whether Labour can deliver against the significant challenge of taking back No. 10 in 2015. Despite a solid lead in the polls, this is no mean feat, with no party returning to the office after just one term in opposition for decades.

2013’s Conference sought to put meat on the bones of Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ proposition, with the party leader repeatedly claiming that ‘Britain can do better than this’. Labour’s challenge for the 18 months ahead remains to ensure that this somewhat theoretical concept resonates with the electorate. Moreover, 2013 was ostensibly a living standards conference, with the majority of policies focused on those who are not yet feeling the effect of the purported economic recovery, such as the critical if undefined ‘squeezed middle’ voters. Conference mood largely overcame the “between elections” malaise, with a number of populist policies and headlines gaining the party a helpful polls boost and broad support from the Conference hall.

Ed Miliband’s leadership style and approach have received widespread criticism, but a solid performance in his Leader’s speech, coupled with a plethora of key policy announcements from his Shadow Cabinet Team suggests this party is gearing up to fight for a majority, not the consolation prize of the coalition. The policy-heavy agenda responded to the recent critique of the party and its leadership about its lack of defined positions in critical policy areas – the so-called “blank sheet of paper” – with notable commitments to build 200,000 homes by 2020, improved access to childcare and the introduction of a new defined crime against members of the armed forces, alongside a popular defence of the NHS, the party’s political trump card. Miliband’s hard-hitting stance with the energy sector, to curtail the rising price of utilities, could also sit well with an electorate who are struggling with the cost of living, but alongside a reversal of the proposed reduction in corporation tax may isolate some of the UK’s big business. Moreover, Miliband’s support for the UK’s SMEs is a clear attempt to advance into the traditional conservative territory, and will no doubt cause the Conservatives to attack Labour’s previous record in this area.

Labour recognised the need to respond to the Coalition’s continued attack on the last Government’s economic record, with Ed Balls aiming to re-establish credibility with a proposal for Office of Budget Responsibility to “independently audit the costings of every individual spending and tax measure in Labour’s manifesto at the next election”. Moreover, Labour is seeking to carve out its green credentials, scrapping the much debated Green Deal for an “improved” scheme and commitment to a 2030 decarbonisation target. However, education policy remains relatively undefined, and an area the party will certainly need to firm up in the coming months.

The publication of Damian McBride’s memoirs looked likely to cast a shadow over the conference, but the widespread view that the party needs to look to its future, not its past, largely kept the discussion about the Blair-Brown years at bay. However, the white elephant will continue to be Labour’s relationship with the unions, which has been pulled further into front pages following the issues at Falkirk, and unsurprisingly given the large union contingent, proposed reforms received a mixed reaction from Conference delegates.

With the arrival of a range of policies announced at this conference, Labour has drawn a clear, defined line between them and other political parties, setting the scene for the 2015 election by posing the question on whether the public feels they are better off since 2010. But time will tell if these policies stand up to professional and public scrutiny and whether Labour’s apparent shift to the left takes the centre ground with it.

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