Labour may not be a divided party but it’s a disconnected one. The activists, certain that the path to victory lies open before them, are excited and upbeat. The MPs and shadow cabinet, nervous that defeat awaits them, are fractious and edgy. And then there’s Ed Miliband, floating serenely above the fray like a Buddhist on Mogadon.
The general perception as Labour drags itself wearily home from another conference is that it was a successful week. Miliband’s speech was well received, there were no significant banana skins and there is a sense of another hurdle surmounted in the 2015 election steeplechase. Job done.
That, however, is Labour’s problem. The job isn’t done. It’s not even half done. Labour hasn’t got as far as loading the tools into the back of the van, setting the satnav and practising a few quick renditions of: “Oh, I haven’t seen one of those before.”
The party can certainly take a number of positives from its week in Manchester. The first is that, contrary to popular wisdom, Miliband has got what it takes to be a retail politician. He is confident in himself, confident in his role as leader and increasingly effective at communicating that to audiences big and small.
Second, any internal leadership issues have firmly and finally been put to bed. Miliband will lead Labour into the next election, regardless of how much Conservative Party strategists view him as an asset and some members of his party see him as liability. That has implications for him, in terms of how he engages with and shapes his shadow cabinet, and for some of Labour’s bigger beasts. Conference week saw the end of Yvette Cooper’s and David Miliband’s leadership ambitions and, by extension, the mantle of heir-apparent transferring to Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves.
In strategic terms, this conference surely also marked the conclusion of Labour’s long march leftwards. For his “one nation” narrative to work, Miliband must begin the tortuous process of herding his party back towards the political centre. Len McCluskey praising the speech must provide a clue to Miliband that he has reached the limit of his flirtation with progressive radicalism.
If there were positives, there were also several negatives. And they are potentially fatal for Labour’s chances of forming the next government.
First, there was Miliband’s obstinate refusal to move out of his – and his party’s – comfort zone. Despite all the plaudits about the vision of one nation under Ed, the reality is that, once again, he bottled out of addressing policy areas that will determine the outcome of the election: immigration, welfare, public-service reform, the economy and long-term deficit reduction.
The line from Miliband’s supporters is that it would be foolish to start mapping out specifics on such contentious issues so far in advance of polling day. Yet one presumes the strategy isn’t to drop the hard detail of issues such as a public-sector pay freeze in the unions’ laps during Labour’s final pre-election conference. The bulk of these issues will need to be fleshed out in 2013, which means that Miliband is storing up the mother of all party management headaches for 12 months’ time.
Another issue is Labour’s lack of urgency. Miliband and his team seem unable (or unwilling) to appreciate the political danger posed by the upcoming launch of the Tories’ economic recovery narrative. Labour generally seems to believe that the economy has gone to hell in a handcart and won’t be reappearing this side of May 2015. If it does, then forget the optics of a leader with the ability to walk, chew gum and talk about his son’s dinosaurs at the same time. A few successive quarters of steady growth will show Labour what a real political game-changer looks like.
Then there is the denial surrounding Miliband. Labour is still waiting for the British people to recognise just how lucky they are to have him as leader of the opposition. And they think that, after his speech, a grateful electorate finally gets it.
We were told this when he seized the agenda on phone-hacking. And the banks. And producers and predators. And the 50p tax cut. And the NHS reforms. And the summer omnishambles. And LIBOR.
Yet we still arrived at conference with between two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate stating that they cannot entertain, nor do they particularly wish to entertain, the prospect of him residing in Downing Street. Labour has to realise the doubts surrounding its leader are substantial. And if it wants to address them, it must at least entertain the notion that when people tell pollsters they cannot see Ed Miliband as their prime minister, they may be telling the truth.
At the start of the week, the Labour Party’s biggest enemy was complacency. And in the hours after the great address, the party faithful weren’t shaking it off – they were toasting it. Once again, Labour has convinced itself that there is an easy route to power. The difficult decisions can be ducked, the process of policy development deferred.
Yes, there is time for a full policy development process to be launched, conducted and finalised. A window remains open for internal debate and discussion over the hard choices that Labour must face if it wants to be taken seriously as a party of government.
However, after this conference week, that window is closing. And as we pass the halfway point of the parliament, it is closing quickly.