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Shades of Blade Runner and Morrissey in rainy Manchester

Labour wants to be a party of radicalism and conservatism. But will it all cohere?

I have family who live in the north-west of England and I visit often. At a party I once met a surgeon, a keen countryman, who told me that for many years he kept a nature journal in which he made note of the weather each day. His view was that, no matter the time of year, it rained five days out of seven in Lancashire. From my own experience, that seems broadly right and there was prolonged rainfall each day I was in Manchester – it felt at times, as you moved in the gloom from conference centre to fringe event, as if you’d wandered on the set of a remake of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. “Manchester, so much to answer for,” the young Morrissey sang. There’s a good, long piece to be written about how the weather has shaped the culture of our great northern city.

Days of wonder

A few months back my colleague George Eaton interviewed the Australian writer and intellectual Tim Soutphommasane, who met Ed Miliband on a visit to London this summer and used a seminar he gave to a small group of Labour insiders to outline his vision of a new left-wing patriotism. He spoke with wonder of how the collective “goodwill generated by the London Olympics [provided] an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though [Danny] Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building.”

For Soutphommasane, the task “of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project”. As George wrote in the conclusion to his piece, in 1945 “Clement Attlee campaigned on the promise of building a ‘new Jerusalem’ in postwar Britain. Nearly 70 years later, a patriotic vow to ‘rebuild Britain’ has the potential once again to sweep Labour to power.”

Indeed it has, which was why it was so fascinating that “Rebuilding Britain”, after the financial crisis and the Great Recession, and notwithstanding the ravages of the coalition’s austerity economics, was chosen as the theme of the Labour party conference and the title of Ed Miliband’s bravura speech. During the speech – as he spoke about the “soul” of the British nation, contextualising the threat that SNP secessionists pose to the Union –Miliband gave articulation to some of Soutphommasane’s ideas as well as, more pertinently, those of Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP who is leading the party’s policy review, and the Blue Labour thinkers Jonathan Rutherford and Marc Stears.

Even a hardened machine politician such as the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, invoked the spirit and achievements of Clement Attlee and the 1945 government in his conference speech, using a language of romantic left-patriotism of a kind I’d never heard from him before. Here, it seems, are the beginnings of a way forward for Labour: to be a party of change but also of preservation; of radicalism and conservatism. But will it all cohere?

Fine and dandy

In Manchester, I chaired a question-and-answer session with Balls. At the beginning of his speech he’d made ostentatious reference to “my friend, our leader, Britain’s next prime minister, Ed Miliband”. I asked him about this and how comfortable he felt serving under a man who was his junior when they worked together for Gordon Brown at the Treasury, and who’d defeated him for the leadership. With his square chin and sharply parted hair, cropped GI-short above the ears, Balls reminds me a little of the comic-book character Desperate Dan. He’s certainly a pugnacious fellow, though one with a hinterland – he spoke of piano lessons and his love of cooking and football – and it’s been said that he physically and intellectually intimidates colleagues and opponents alike.

Balls showed anger only when I reminded him that Miliband had originally chosen Alan Johnson as his first shadow chancellor. “I don’t give a toss about that,” he replied. All that mattered, he said, was that he and Miliband were now united, he was content to be the younger man’s “junior”, and they had both “learned the lessons” of the Blair-Brown feud. It was useful, to steal a line from Philip Larkin, to get that learnt. But let’s see.

Party people

Last year’s New Statesman conference party in Liverpool’s docklands was memorable for a hilarious cameo appearance from Ed Miliband. Before the party there’d been much speculation about whether he’d turn up at all because he (or his team) was meant to be unhappy about our blogger Dan Hodges, or an NS leader calling for his brother, David, to return to frontline politics, or something equally trivial. In the event, in a scene reminiscent of The Thick of It, he turned up late and stayed for all of a minute or so as he walked in the front door, brushed hands with some of the guests, hurried through the party and went straight out the back door, never to return.

This year, he came early to our party at the imposingly Gothic Manchester Town Hall and stayed for considerably longer. It began at 7pm and was still pulling in guests, including the elder Miliband, as I made my excuses and left at around 10.30. As I was on my way out, my counterpart from the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, was on his way in, case in hand, straight from the station. As we passed, I asked if he’d mind taking over as host. From what I hear, he made a decent job of it.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special