If the polls, the bookmakers and a sizeable number of Conservative MPs are right, Labour will soon achieve the rare feat of returning to government after a single term in opposition. But anyone who stumbled upon the party’s conference in Manchester would never have surmised that this was a party on the brink of power. Rather than an infantry advancing remorselessly on Downing Street, Labour resembled a wounded army in need of convalescence.
If the party appeared traumatised, it was partly because, in the Scottish independence referendum, it suffered what the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, described as a “near-death experience”. The fraught effort to save the Union confirmed many of the worst fears of Labour MPs: that they are now regarded as part of the establishment, rather than as a force for change; that their core vote is atrophying and decaying; and that seemingly solid poll leads can melt away in the heat of the short campaign. That McCluskey is said to have privately favoured independence (Unite’s position was officially neutral) is further evidence of the fissure in the Labour family.
The aftershocks of the Scottish vote were everywhere to be seen. David Cameron’s threat to bar non-English MPs from voting on English laws (made the morning after the referendum in order to prevent his backbenchers devouring him by lunchtime) gave interviewers permission to bamboozle Ed Miliband and others with constitutional conundrums that have long vexed Westminster’s finest minds. Having spent weeks combating the nationalists, the Labour leader and his shadow cabinet were also deprived of the energy usually reserved for their annual gathering.
The day before Miliband’s speech, a Labour aide told me that it was “doubtful” that he would deliver another no-notes performance, owing to the constraints on his time. His decision nonetheless to attempt to repeat this feat of memory, only to forget an important passage on the deficit and immigration, was an unforced and careless error. As one shadow cabinet minister observed afterwards: “We know he can memorise speeches, or most of them anyway. A lectern would have been more prime ministerial.”
Unlike in previous years, Miliband’s speech was closer to an anaesthetic than the adrenaline shot that was needed. It was only the mention of the NHS, 45 minutes into his 65-minute address, that produced a Pavlovian ovation. If there is any consolation for Labour, it is that conference speeches are less significant for their oratorical flourishes (or lack of) than for the strategic calculations they reveal. On this measure, Miliband scored highly. The decision to make the NHS the centrepiece of the address was acknowledged by all wings of the party to have been an astute one. There is no issue on which Labour polls better and no public institution that is more cherished. As a Conservative MP recently told me: “The NHS makes socialists of all of us.” If one of the defining questions at the general election is, “Which party do you trust with the NHS?” there is a far greater chance that the voters will send Miliband to No 10.
The juxtaposition of an annual £2.5bn health fund with populist (and popular) taxes on mansions, tobacco firms and hedge funds was designed to mercilessly exploit the Tories’ weaknesses. Having once declared that his political priority could be defined in three letters – “NHS” – Cameron has since obeyed the edict of the Conservative campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, to avoid mentioning it for fear of aiding the enemy.
A version of a mansion tax was considered by the coalition but was vetoed by the Prime Minister, reportedly on the grounds that: “Our donors will never put up with it.” Of the three main parties, only the Tories believe that a family in a three-bedroom house in Tower Hamlets should pay the same rate of property tax as an oligarch in a Kensington palace. Those voters who select what James O’Shaughnessy, Cameron’s former director of policy, calls the “dreaded posh family in front of a mansion” when asked to choose the picture that best represents the Tories have had all their prejudices confirmed. As one Conservative lamented to me after the party warned that Labour wants “to tax your family home”: “A £2m property isn’t a normal family home.”
If there is one thing that unites the two parties, it is their determination to draw sharp dividing lines and to fight the general election on home territory. Both Crosby and David Axelrod, the former Obama adviser hired by Labour as a senior strategist, are devotees of the belief that parties win by framing the debate around their strongest suits. For Labour, these are the NHS, living standards and progressive taxation; for the Tories, immigration, the deficit and welfare.
The political cross-dressing that characterised the New Labour years and the first period of Cameron’s leadership is now a distant memory. For this reason, both sides are vulnerable to the charge that they are pursuing core vote strategies. The historically low level of switching between the two parties (with just 5 per cent from each side defecting) shows how far either is from emulating the achievements of Thatcher and Blair, the great landsliders of British politics.
Miliband’s defining conviction, which inspired him to stand for the Labour leadership, is the belief that it is both possible and essential to win an election by running to the left of New Labour. At one point, some hoped that this would take the form of a 1945-style surge as the “progressive majority” revolted against austerity. Yet the mood is now less buoyant. As one shadow cabinet minister put it: “We might fall over the line.” The air of resignation that suffused Manchester was born of the awareness that the best Labour can now hope for is a scrappy win.