So, to party conference. What will we learn in Manchester? It will be a test of how ready Labour is for our friends in the press. Opposition is strange that way: you spend 51 weeks of the year desperate to scrabble your way onto the news agenda. The other week you get so much attention it can kill.
The pressure will come on both personnel and policy. For the first, the questions will all be about the Ed-and-Ed show. Last year Ed Miliband was something of a curiosity; this year he is a potential prime minister. Ed Balls, meanwhile, bet the Labour party on the economy going back into recession, and won. For both, the journey since the last conference can be seen as something of a vindication. Both men, to use Miliband’s phrase, can turn to the country and say ‘I was definitely right.’
So suddenly it matters whether the two of them get on, even whether their advisers are talking about the same issues, using the same language. The press will be monitoring our Mancunian shebang for the mildest tremors on the Blair-Brown scale of internal conflict. Some witty journalist will offer to get Balls a coffee, then write up his sipping style as a critique of the leader.
Both men’s teams expect the scrutiny, so the show will be a big part of conference. ‘Two Eds are better than one’, as the shadow chancellor likes to say. Hopefully, you will turn from Ed to Ed and not be able to tell one from the other. Balls’ economic vision will be saluted and hymned by all and sundry, and he will return the compliment by paying tribute to the bravery and moral courage of his leader.
So will the story of conference be the bromance of the Eds? Not quite, because the other aspect of being a potential government is the need to answer the question, ‘so what would you do?’ Last year we first heard the timeless words ‘a five-point plan for jobs and growth’, which has been a very present friend for all shadow cabinet ministers in their Today programme hour of need. As the economy has flatlined, so Labour has been able to stick to our lines.
Now, though, the party has to lift our vision a little higher, and there we find complexities, arguments and those famous ‘hard choices’. How far can we go on an industrial bank, or on transport infrastructure spending? How will we tackle universal credit costs, or NHS reform now it has passed into law?
Don’t expect to find out much in Manchester. Both the Eds have an interest in a delay for the details, the leader because he needs time to populate the big policy space he has created by talking about predators, producers, predistribution and the progressive moment, his shadow chancellor because he simply does not know how much money he will have to play with. Why be the grinch who stole Christmas if you might get to have some presents to hand out later?
So we will get policy touches, not a policy agenda. We will answer the ‘what would you do?’ question with an embellished five-point plan – ‘now with added industrial banks and wealth taxes!’ – attack the government for its manifest incompetence and divisions, show the top team standing shoulder to shoulder, indulge in a harmless spot of Cable-baiting (and demand a Clegg-cull in the south-west), and hope against hope that all this frantic action will protect us from an inquisition over the more distant political challenges.
It is a smart strategy, and it will probably work. It is the last year it can, though. This time next year, the Ed-and-Ed show will need a lot more script to go with the choreography.
Wish upon a rising star …
Naturally, the show will not be the only performances in town. On the undercard we will get a look at the next generation. Since the last conference, Chuka Umunna, Stephen Twigg and Liz Kendall have moved to the front of the Labour shop-window, and this will be their big chance to show their talents.
However, I am expecting one campaign to begin in earnest. The Ken era is over, so the battle to be Labour’s nominee for London mayor will start, quietly and without fanfare. David Lammy has a headstart on any possible opponents, and he will be surprisingly ubiquitous at conference. Watch this space.
A Scottish departure
Drama in Scotland as Labour leader Johann Lamont asserts her authority over the party ahead of the independence referendum.
First, communications director Rami Okasha was suspended following reports of rows with the leader’s office. Now the Scottish Labour party general-secretary Colin Smyth has departed following some pretty brutal briefing against both men.
This may not be coincidence, I am told. Scottish Labour politics is certainly a full contact sport. Next, watch out for plans to move some or all of Labour’s Scottish headquarters to Edinburgh, where they will be much closer to the leader’s Holyrood office.
While Labour’s Scottish MPs are less than comfortable about the total transfer of party authority to Holyrood, it is pretty clear that Lamont’s team now has both the authority and the power to change things north of the border.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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