I have been feeling quite gloomy about the Labour Party recently. I have been frustrated that the party has failed in the public’s eyes to provide strong leaders, and is not ready to be trusted on the economy. This was the mood I was in when I walked into Progress’ Annual Conference yesterday morning.
I arrived with a tax-dodging Starbucks coffee to wake me up and maybe jolt me out of my negativity. After chatting to some of the people I met at Progress’ political weekend, I took my seat 2for the opening speech.
Andrew Adonis gave the usual attack on the Coalition and the expected plug for his new book, ‘5 days in May’. He got applause for an increase in the minimum wage and called for action not austerity, but the speech was an introduction rather than a rally so it wasn’t a surprise to not hear anything new or particularly rousing.
The post-intro opening panel summed up the tensions that the Party seems to be feeling at the moment. Peter Kellner of YouGov and Phil Collins from The Times talked of the public’s, and their own, discontent with the Party’s leadership performance. They warned that the polls are not promising and we are still not where we need to be to win. These two speakers reflected my own low mood and I find it worrying that at the moment I tend to agree with journalists and pollsters far more often than Labour MPs. Their two big messages were that the public still need to be convinced of Ed Miliband’s ability and Ed Ball’s trustworthiness on the economy.
On the other side were Harriet Harman and Andrew Harrop (general secretary of the Fabians), who were both more defensive. Harriet was passionate and compelling when she argued for continuing to increase the diversity of the Party and MPs, but it didn’t feel as though she successfully rebutted the negativity, and the session ended in stalemate.
For the breakout session I chose ‘Economic competence: Have we earned the public’s trust?’ because Margaret Hodge was on the panel. The other panelists were economists who were united on their Keynesian analysis of how to get the economy moving and the opinion that we need to escape from the narrative of being blamed entirely for the recession.
After lunch it was time for the day’s keynote speech from Ed Miliband. I was really hoping that this would be the speech to force me out of my pessimistic attitude but unfortunately I will have to wait a bit longer for this to happen. There was no need for this to be a great speech and it did exactly what it needed to do to keep the room happy but it was a shame, with the growing negativity in the party, that Ed didn’t do something special to silence his critics. He started well with a joke about driving around the block looking for cyclists and his general theme seemed to be that the old certainties that were true in ’97 had broken down. The message I thought could be built upon was that living standards are falling; this theme has the ‘kitchen table’ appeal that the One Nation message lacks. In the end I felt that I have heard this speech a dozen times before. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t hear much that would have the cut through with the public that would aid Ed’s credibility and affability.
Ed did better with the post speech Q&A but failed to answer the question so many were thinking – “The party is doing well in the polls but you and Ed Balls are not. What are you going to do about it?”
In the afternoon I went to the discussion on ‘One Nation appeal: How can we win across Britain?’ PPC for Norwich North, Jessica Asato and Alison McGovern MP did well and illustrated a point that Phil Collins made in the morning; that there were people in the Party who could propose interesting policies to start convincing the public, but they don’t get the cover from the leadership that they need.
The final panel in the main room was very entertaining but summed up what had become the unfortunate theme of the day; the growing discontent with the Party’s performance. The panel was an echo of the first of the day – journalists versus politicians, and again I agreed with the journalists. Peter Mandelson, one of the founders of Progress, gave what he knew would be the naughtiest quote of the day – “I agree with One Nation Labour because it is a good New Labour theme.”
David Aaronovitch of The Times spoke angrily that we still haven’t seen ‘Baldric’s cunning plan’ that the leadership is plotting, but remained hopeful (just barely) that the plan would be a good one. Aaronovitch then put the nail in the coffin of the day by asking the question that he called the ‘elephant in the room’ – will the Party win with this leader? At that point everyone realised how interesting their shoes were because they were still waiting for Ed to ‘wow’ both them and the country. We do wait in hope but if we are still hoping by next year’s conference, the mood won’t be gloomy, it will be hostile.