The Labour party conference in Manchester felt unusually flat. This could perhaps be put down to the trauma and the aftermath of the Scotland referendum – although the result was a comfortable win for the No campaign, it still exposed the profound divisions in Britain.
Almost 45 per cent of the Scots who voted wanted independence. Deep, structural forces are cleaving our United Kingdom. Scottish nationalism, the Ukip insurgency in England and the general anti-politics mood are symptoms of the need not only for constitutional reform and a reconfigured Union but for far-reaching economic and social change.
Ed Miliband understands this but the independence referendum was a reminder of the chasm that exists between the Labour Party and its former core vote. Over a third of those who support Scottish Labour voted Yes. A majority of the young, poor and unemployed voted for independence. Ominously for Labour, these groups viewed Mr Miliband as merely another representative of the discredited Westminster elite. Yet loathing of Westminster is not a phenomenon specific to Scotland. The disconnect between MPs and the electorate is evident in the collapse of turnout at general elections, the decline in membership of the main parties (but not the SNP or Ukip) and the fracturing of the two-party system.
As a result, there is unusual uncertainty surrounding the general election next year. Labour strategists say that they know what it feels like to be on course to lose an election – as in 2010 or in the 1980s. And, as in 1997, 2001 or 2005, they also know what it feels like to be certain of victory. The election in May 2015 falls somewhere in between.
It all amounts to a toxic combination that would unsettle most leaders. However, it is to Mr Miliband’s credit that he is less prone to short-termism than many, reflecting what he has called his “intellectual self-confidence”. His mission – his “ten-year plan” – is nothing less than to reshape Britain’s political economy. “The deck is stacked. The game is rigged in favour of those who have all the power,” he said on 23 September. Altering the economic rules, in his eyes, is the route to tempering the forces of nationalism, in England and Scotland alike, and quelling the anti-politics mood.
Commendable as the vision is, problems persist. Mr Miliband, the ultimate Westminster insider, struggles to gain a hearing in the country at large. There is, too, a question of voice and vocabulary. Can he speak to Britain as well as for it? No wonder that several of the most animated discussions at the Labour conference focused on the lack of working-class MPs. Some of the policy announcements at the conference do not sit easily with the ambition of the Miliband project. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said that Labour would not borrow to invest in 2015/2016, tying himself to the mast of George Osborne’s approach. He also apologised for Labour not imposing transitional controls on immigrants from eastern Europe in 2004 – ignoring that a comprehensive analysis last year found that immigrants from the European Economic Area since 2000 contributed 34 per cent more in taxes than they received from the state.
Mr Miliband’s speech was not nearly as well received as those he delivered in 2012 and 2013. In many ways, it was notable for what it did not say. The rhetorical slogan “One Nation” has been quietly dropped. Similarly, he neglected, or forgot, to mention the deficit, even if a section about it was included in the transcript of the speech.
With its banner slogan of “Together”, the Manchester speech represented the culmination of Mr Miliband’s four-year intellectual journey as leader. A clear thread links his much-mocked “predators and producers” speech in Liverpool in 2011 with his desire to recalibrate Britain’s political economy today. His ambition and his reforming instincts are unquestionable. He is a determined and ethical leader.
But he should beware: there was little sense of optimism among the delegates in Manchester. They like and admire their leader but are worried he is failing to connect with the wider electorate. They feel they are moving inexorably towards a hung parliament, with all the uncertainty that would bring. Labour does not yet feel like a party preparing for power. The one consolation is that Labour is united, unlike the Conservatives, who are divided and crisis-stricken – and who have, in the form of the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, an enemy from within their own family intent on tearing them apart.