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How to read the Labour conference

By Peter Hoskin
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I’m sure you’ve already got your remote control poised, the TV guide internalised, perhaps even a holiday booked — and all so you can avoid Labour’s party conference when it starts tomorrow. But, for those foolhardy few who plan to tune into Mr Miliband’s Manchester Meet-up, I’ve produced the below list of ten potential themes and leitmotifs. They may appear, they may not, but they're worth looking out for.

1) “Borrowing’s going up”. The charge that the Coalition is mismanaging the public finances will be the one that’s most frequently made from the stage in Manchester; and this idea, that “borrowing is going up”, will probably be the most significant component of it. We’ve heard this a lot from Labour recently — often in the context of “They’re cutting spending, growth is flat-lining, and still…” — so it’s worth dwelling on more than any other entry in this list.

In truth, this attack has been around, in one particular form, for at least a year now. It started when, thanks to weaker-than-expected growth, the Office for Budget Responsibility had to revise its forecasts for public borrowing upwards. Borrowing was still going down, year-on-year, over the course of this Parliament, but it was higher each year than originally advertised. Here’s a graph to show the effect, comparing OBR forecasts from the past three years:


Of course, Ed Balls seized on this with glee, declaring that “The Tories are borrowing £x billion more than they said they would”. But, while he’d sometimes describe this as what it is — “borrowing forecasts going up” — he’d also frequently, and conveniently, forget to add the word “forecasts”. And thus the impression might have accidentally been created that the Coalition was going to increase borrowing over this Parliament…

But the attack has gained new momentum recently, with the release of certain monthly borrowing figures. These suggest that in, say, June this year, public borrowing was higher than it was for the month of June last year (£14.4 billion compared to £13.9 billion). What’s more, when certain distortive effects to do with Royal Mail pensions are removed from the equation, borrowing was higher in April to August this financial year than it was for the corresponding period last year. And so, taken in snapshot, borrowing might be said to be going up.

But what about over the whole Parliament? Borrowing is still expected to be significantly lower in 2015 than it was in 2010, but the picture in between is slightly muddier after the release of the latest monthly borrowing figures last week. They revealed that the Office for National Statistics (NB. not the Office for Budget Responsibility) has revised down its figure for borrowing in the last financial year, 2011-12, such that (at £119.3 billion) is it now lower than its forecast for borrowing in this financial year (£119.9 billion).

Of course, what this shows is that the borrowing figures are endlessly revisable. And it could be that, when the OBR releases its forecasts to accompany the Autumn Statement in December, this will all have resolved itself. But Labour aren’t going to wait: they’ll take whatever figures they can get and extend them to bursting point. As they do, it’s worth remembering that borrowing — and the resultant debt — would have been even higher under their plans.

2) “We’d have to cut, too”. If you’re going to attack Mr Osborne for not getting the deficit down, then it helps if you talk about getting the deficit down yourself. This is what Labour seemed to realise in January of this year, when they admitted that they couldn’t promise to reverse Coalition spending cuts should they triumph at the next election. And they amplified the sentiment yesterday with Ed Balls’ announcement that an incoming Labour government would undertake a “zero-based review” of every item of government spending. These are fine words, and no doubt they’ll resurface in Manchester — but the problem, as Tim pointed out, is precisely that they are little more than words. Balls is asking the British public to take it on trust that Labour would crack down on spending after 2015.

3) “Too far, too fast”. But this, if it’s wheeled out, is where Labour’s message gets really messy. It’s not that “too far, too fast” cannot be resolved with the two points above: Labour’s position is something like a) were they in power now, they wouldn’t be cutting spending by as much as the Coalition is, b)this could actually help get the deficit down, by improving growth, and c) but they would set about spending cuts with zero-based gusto after the next election. But the fact remains that they’ve never managed to weave these threads together persuasively. What it generally sounds like is an argument that cuts are bad but — by golly! — we’d implement them. This comes across as both contradictory and opportunistic.  

4) LibLabbery. After once calling the Lib Dems a “disgrace to the traditions of liberalism”, Ed Miliband and his party have now struck on a friendlier official line: sure we’d work with you, they say, but please do ditch that Clegg chap first. This has reached apogee recently, with all the back-and-forth speculation about Vince Cable, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t continue in Manchester. We already know that Mr Miliband will concentrate on some Lib Dem-friendly themes; but what would make it particularly interesting is if he also highlights some specific areas of potential cooperation, perhaps including media regulation.

5) Tony Blair (and/or David Miliband). The divide between the Brownites and the Blairites — which can be mapped on to the divide between the Ed-ites and the David-ites, although they’re not quite the same thing — still festers in the Labour party. Ed Miliband has worked to heal this tension recently, including by appointing Mr Blair as an advisor on the Olympic legacy, but much more could be done. On the Labour leader’s part, a more persuasive message about deficit reduction and greater pride about New Labour’s reform agenda might help. On Blair and David Miliband’s part, a few kind words about Ed’s Labour could also go a long way. But, of course, there’s a flipside to all this: any sign of internal dissent could rock the Labour leader’s conference. Given his personal poll ratings, he will not want the old idea to resurface, that Labour would do better without him.

6) The Brown years. When Ed Miliband first became Labour leader, he gave a speech that was dripping with praise for Gordon Brown. “I am proud to call him my friend,” is how one line began, “We should pay tribute today to Gordon Brown for his leadership of our party and our country.” Yet we haven’t heard much more of that since, as Mr Miliband has slowly preferred to distance himself from the Brown years. Will he go further with this distancing process in Manchester? It would certainly be one way to respond to CCHQ’s new anti-Labour poster, which seeks to aggravate the ‘Son of Brown’ theme. Even now, Labour strategists might be finding another bell for Mr Brown to ring somewhere, to keep him out of the country.  

7) The unions. As it is with Gordon Brown, so it is with the unions. Ed Miliband was carried to the Labour throne by the brothers’ votes, but he’s sought to take a few steps back from them since. His speeches to TUC conferences have been careful to criticise the strikes. He has made sure to follow appearances at trade union gatherings, such as the Durham Miners’ Gala, with appearances in the City. He will no doubt strike a similar balance in his rhetoric in Manchester, as he tries to speak out to people beyond the confines of the conference hall. But doubt persists about how substantial this really is, given that all the formal ties between Labour and the unions still remain. If Miliband really wanted to make a splash (and help unclog the current impasse over party funding, thereby appealing to Lib Dems), he’d do something like back an “opt-in” political levy for union members.

8) Boris. Okay, so we can probably expect a cascade of Nick Clegg-style style jokes about Boris and the Tory leadership. But can we expect something more? Labour’s Douglas Alexander has twice in recent interviews, with the New Statesman and with the Evening Standard, warned his party to take Boris seriously. The question is whether this will be reflected in the attacks that Labour make from Manchester, whether on Boris directly or on his policies for London.

9) Blue-skies blather. If Mr Miliband thinks it through, I doubt we’ll hear the word “predistribution” in Manchester — but the thinking behind it will surely feature. It is, after all, the Labour party’s Big New Idea and, beyond the off-putting name, it cannot just be dismissed out of hand. Yet Miliband has never lacked for political theories for Westminster’s wonk community to dissect; his problem is turning them into political proposals that actually mean something to the average voter, which brings us on to…

10) Policies. I was tempted to write “only joking” for this entry because, as we know, Mr Miliband has been a bit policy-shy since taking over as Labour leader. However, I decided against it because this could be the conference where that changes — if only slightly. After all, surely Mr Miliband realises that the absence of detail is one of the greatest, most persistent weaknesses of his leadership. And, besides, his two-year policy review — originally presided over by Liam Byrne, now by Jon Cruddas — should soon be at an end, and might already be yielding a few concrete proposals.