Mandy's flirtation with Communism

Jessica Asato observes that the fog has finally lifted, as Labour bounces back with renewed vigour,

For me, the start of Labour Party Conference is always signalled by Progress'
popular annual Sunday night Rally. This year, expectant camera crews and delegates waited to hear Peter Mandelson give his blessing to Gordon Brown's premiership as revealed in the Observer that morning. Nervous laughs greeted Mandelson's concession that he'd indulged in a bit of flirting in his life, though thankfully not with David Cameron as the Observer had suggested.
Tension mounted as he further admitted that his dalliance with the Young Communists was more for "social" rather than "political" reasons. Ooh er.

So we were all much happier when he settled on his central message that Gordon Brown should be congratulated for leading a dignified and stable transition,and that New Labour was alive and well in his hands. He did give a mild warning that there needed to be greater articulation of how the Government intended to tackle difficult issues such as public service reform and crime and security. But apart from that there were smiles all round, and even a bit of advice for Ed Ball's first Progress Rally speech: "Don't go on for too long". Never harmed Mandy though.

After the Rally we cantered to the first receptions of conference, and first up was the Young Fabian's bash, which a couple of years ago used to have Mandelson in the line-up, but who have since become rather more serious and used the occasion to big-up their latest pamphlet on fighting the BNP. Good on them. Then it was back into the whirling rain to get across the other side of the conference centre to the New Statesman reception which did have plenty of champagne but had the downside of being incredibly sweaty. Thinking we'd escape the heat we trudged back to the Highcliff which is this year's conference hotel, only to find it rammed with, by this time of the evening, pretty worse-for-wear delegates. The news earlier in the day of Gordon's crack-down on teen binge-drinking looked rather misdirected.

Everything seems to have happened much more quickly this year because the leader's speech moved to Monday. So quickly in fact that we forgot to find tickets for the main hall, and had to settle to watch it in the 'Hot Rocks Cafe' complete with neon signs and surf boards. It was a slightly surreal viewing experience with the seriousness of Brown's message surrounded by bright plastic garlands on the walls, Hawaiian shirts and messages of Aloha!

In the background you could hear the organ-grinder music of the carousel spinning outside, which got on the nerves after a while. It was not hard, however, to be moved by Gordon Brown's very personal call to the nation to trust his judgement and his claim to be a conviction politician. His cry that 'no injustice can last forever' and the image of a 'golden thread of common humanity' which connects us across national boundaries, let us see Brown in his moral element.

The question on most conference attendee's minds this week was: when is the election going to be called? It's pretty pointless to speculate but still quite interesting to see what people think. Andy Burnham at the Progress fringe on Monday said quite adamantly that he'd prefer an election in 2008, citing the boost of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the 60th Anniversary of the NHS, while Stephen Twigg, Progress Chair and newly selected candidate for Liverpool West Derby, said that we'd be better organised if we left it, but then so would the Tories. We're equally keen for Stephen to be back in Parliament as soon as possible, but we're also rather anxious that the Progress Annual Conference which is already packed with oodles of top speakers is booked for November 3rd...

The main feeling from this conference is one of unity and a shared endeavour to win a fourth term. Compared to last year it's like the fog has lifted and given everyone renewed vigour to take on the Tories. But as Andy Burnham warned in the Progress debate on David Cameron, the Party mustn't fall into the trap of becoming "arrogant, complacent or over-confident" otherwise our enthusiasm will be very short-lived indeed.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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