The Labour Party’s final conference before next year’s general election was perhaps not the success Ed Miliband had been hoping for. While 91-year-old Harry Smith’s passionate defence of the NHS drew tears for inside the hall and beyond, Miliband’s own impact was far less impressive.
His 68 minute speech was characterised not by what it included, but what it did not. Speaking without notes Miliband failed to take note of either the deficit or immigration. This failure is surprising. Labour still lacks economic credibility amongst voters. According to Guardian/ICM polling little over a third of voters trust Labour to handle the economy and time is running out for Miliband to prove he has a handle on this. His negligence to mention immigration is also interesting. Again, Labour has lost ground on this issue, not least in its traditional heartlands in the north of England. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory suggested as recently as June that over 75% of voters were “in favour of reducing immigration,” yet Labour have steadfastly refused to adopt this approach. Indeed, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper used a speech on Tuesday to call for the coalition’s net migration caps to be lifted.
A bad conference for Miliband, but a good one for shadow Health Minister Andy Burnham. In a rare show of raw passion, Burnham called for the public to “serve notice on Cameron and Clegg…a reckoning for trashing the public’s most prized asset without their permission … A winter crisis in A&E now a spring, summer and autumn crisis too.” Burnham came fourth in Labour’s 2010 Leadership election, but is a popular figure amongst the party’s rank and file membership. While Miliband, Cooper, Balls and Umunna can be accused of possessing a narrow and metropolitan worldview, Burnham, born in Liverpool and current MP for Leigh, seems to have a grounded attitude that appeals to Labour’s core constituent. It is probably too late for a palace-coup, but it would not be surprising to see Burnham angling himself for the top job should Ed Miliband fail to lead Labour back into office.
Burnham’s interjection apart, the atmosphere at this year’s conference was notably flat. Though Scotland said “no” to independence, Labour lost ground to the SNP and the party’s ‘big beasts,’ Gordon Brown excluded, seemed to be little match for Yes Scotland’s social-media led, grassroots campaign. David Cameron’s decision to link Scottish and English devolution has wrong footed Labour and raises fundamental questions as to the party’s direction. It will undoubtedly be concerning to activists that Douglas Alexander, the man tasked with coordinating campaigning in the run up to May 2015 failed to excite supporters or to suggest lessons that could be learnt from the independence referendum. In a last attempt to rally the troops, deputy-leader Harriet Harman referred to the Tories as “even worse than when they took that Baked Alaska out of the freezer in Bake Off. That’s how bad it’s going to be.”
Harman’s joke may well have been a throwaway gag, but during a conference in which policy appeared thin on the ground it will have done little to ease the concerns of Labour supporters. With just eight months to go until the next election the party is still without a cohesive program on a raft of issues and Ed Miliband, despite perhaps some good intentions, remains a figure of fun, characterised by his wonkish, awkward character and an inability to take decisive action. While Manchester should have been the site of a Labour’s fanfare, it instead witnessed a whimper. Decisive action is needed, sooner, rather than later.
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