Back in action or back in the red? Labour Party Conference review

Fighting for ordinary people, or back to their old ways?

 

Speaking in the language of the Westminster bubble, this should be the time for mid-term blues. Usually mid-way through a Parliament, governing parties see their popularity dip, and support for the opposition rises as voters begin to yearn for change. However, most signs show that Labour isn’t doing as well as you might expect. A modest opinion poll lead of around 35% barely covers the cracks. It seems that voters don’t see Ed Miliband as a Prime Ministerial figure. As if that wasnt bad enough, they also doubt Labour’s economic credibility, and are fed up of Labour endlessly opposing Coalition policies with offering any alternatives. The job of a popular opposition movement seems to have been filled by a flag-waving Nigel Farage, as he attempts to lift a pint in every pub in the country and take us back to the 1950s.

It is under these dark clouds that Labour party members descended on the seaside town of Brighton this week, as the party geared up to tackle the three barriers that block their long road back to government: their lack of leadership, economic credibility or policies.

Their leadership problems were obviously not going to be solved with one swift speech, but Ed Miliband tried hard to show voters that he is, in fact, just a normal man fighting for the downtrodden, average Brit. His speech recounted countless encounters with ‘normal people’, from market traders in Chesterfield to scaffolders in London. His hope is that he can recast both himself and his party as the defenders of the common people against the nasty Tory party. He told the conference that there is “a thing about David Cameron. He may be strong at standing up to the weak, but he is always weak when it comes to standing up against the strong.” Obviously the verdict is still out on whether people can see Ed as their next leader on the international stage, but there will be a lot of ground to regain.

But perhaps more important than media-friendly leadership issues is policy. And when it comes to the economy, voters simply don’t trust Labour with their money. Voters still associate Labour with people queuing outside Northern Rock as the economy plummeted into recession, and many still link the pain they are feeling today to the surge in spending under Brown’s government. To address this, Labour tried hard to show they can still be trusted. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls admitted Labour would back tough Coalition policies in the name of saving money, and told the conference that the government would accept child benefit cuts for top earners, a cap on benefits per household and the raising of the retirement age. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, reiterated the party’s stance to “stick to strict spending limits to get the deficit down. We are not going to be able to spend money we don’t have.” With the economy showing signs of a long-awaited but timid recovery, Labour is starting to base their election pitch on living standards. They say they can be a party of austerity, but will use what little money there is left to help out the little man against rising prices and falling wages in harsh economic conditions. Again, only time will tell on how this strategy will prosper.

But the issue where Labour made the most progress in this conference was policy. With 18 months to go until the next election, it seems Labour chiefs are ready to show how they will try to win back people’s votes in 2015. Again, these policies are specifically aimed at helping the average Brits against a squeeze in living standards. On Tuesday Ed Balls announced an increased bank levy to fund an increase in free childcare for three to four year olds, from 15 hours to 25 hours a week. Balls also promised a 10p starting rate of tax to act as a tax cut for “25 million hard-working people on middle and lower incomes”. Miliband then offered to strengthen the minimum wage, to end the bedroom tax, to increase house building, and to make all schools offer breakfast and after school clubs. Then, finally, he revealed his showstopper. He promised to pass legislation in his first year as Prime Minister that would freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017.

So Labour began to show us what Britain could look like come 2015. Ed Milibands mantra was that “Britain can do better” and that we need a “one-nation” government, not a government run by the elite in the interest of the few. But many have claimed that his policies once again reveal “red Ed” and a yearning to take Labour back to its old socialist creed. The City AM newspaper headline on Thursday stated that “Labour [has declared a] war on business”. Even the former Labour minister, Peter Mandelson, argued that Labour’s energy policy is a “step backwards”. But this isn’t Ed’s attempt to break the liberal consensus. It is, in fact, a concerted effort to make it work for the many, not the few.

The strongest line from this conference came from the party leader himself. Ed Miliband declared: “They used to say a rising tide lifts all the boats; now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts.” It shows Labour are preparing for a long grassroots battle to win back power in 2015, and now they have their battle cries ready. They are still the party fighting for the normal people of this country, and will strive to achieve a balanced recovery for all, against a Tory government run by out-of-touch millionaires who only work in the interest of the few. And with that we roll on to Manchester next week, as David Cameron prepares to wrap up the conference season and offer us his response.

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