Starting just 48 hours after the high constitutional drama of the Scottish referendum, Labour conference was fated to suffer in comparison. Not that the leadership were expecting fireworks – given their narrow lead in the opinion polls, the hierarchy only ever aspired to an uneventful, disciplined week in Manchester. But even given such a limited aspiration, the atmosphere was much diminished compared to previous years.
A hangover from Scotland was inevitable, given many activists, and most frontbenchers, had spent much of the summer in Scotland, campaigning ever-more frenetically for a No vote. But most podium speeches – even those from the party’s rising stars – were met with polite applause at best. Even the Midland Hotel bar, which witnessed raucous scenes from both sides when the Labour leadership was decided in Manchester in 2010, was distinctly flat all week.
As ever, the conference centrepiece was the leader’s speech on Tuesday afternoon. Ed Miliband once again opted for his ‘look ma, no notes’ approach to public speaking. Unfortunately for the Labour leader, with no text to fall back on he omitted planned sections on immigration and – crucially – the deficit. Whoever is victorious in May will soon have to carry out a spending review which institutes spending cuts – and, potentially, tax increases – on a scale exceeding the past five years. The deficit will be a huge issue at the election. By forgetting to mention it, Mr Miliband provided his critics with further ammunition to say he is simply not serious about confronting the totemic economic problem of our times.
What Mr Miliband remembered to say revealed how closely the party is sticking to the ‘35% strategy’ – targeting Labour 2010 voters and disaffected Liberal Democrats to creep over the winning line and take the keys to Number 10 next spring. And judged on those narrow terms, the speech did its job. The narrative meandered around a nebulous “Together” concept, contrasting the collective spirit of Labour (and, by implication, the wider Left) with Tory individualism. Policy announcements on funding the NHS via new taxes on big tobacco and big houses, and votes for 16 year olds would be equally welcomed at Lib Dem conference. There was very little anyone in a yellow rosette would have disagreed with.
Mr Miliband was relatively well received by conference. But the reception delegates gave to their current darling, Andy Burnham, illustrates much about the current mind-set of the Labour party. Cementing his leader’s focus on the NHS, but in more barnstorming tones, the Shadow Health Secretary won several standing ovations playing to the party’s core vote. Bookies have cut the odds on the Leigh MP succeeding Ed Miliband. By telling Labour what it wants to hear, Mr Burnham’s personal political fortunes are prospering. But if the party wants to reach beyond the 35% strategy next May, it may need to focus on reaching a wider audience.
As part of our summary of Labour Conference, see our analysis on how the conversation continued on social media, and explore the Road to the Manifestos – our guide to the people, processes and policies that matter in the lead up to the 2015 General Election.