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Five things we’ve learnt about Ed Miliband’s Labour from their Manchester conference

By Peter Hoskin
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Labour’s five-day jamboree ends today. There will be a closing speech by Harriet Harman at lunchtime, as well as some prior talks, before everyone leaves Manchester to the Greatest Football Team in the World, and decamps to their constituencies and to London. So apologies if this quick list of the things we’ve learnt from the Labour conference is a little premature, but I can’t see things changing much this morning. Here goes:

1) In  terms of presentation, Labour are turning blue. In my ConHome column on Tuesday, I wrote that the most important aspect of the Labour conference was how “Ed Miliband’s party is straying onto territory usually occupied by the Conservatives” — and that was even before the “One Nation” speech that Mr Miliband delivered later that day. From the emphasis on property ownership to Yvette Cooper’s claim that Labour are “now the party of policing”, from the rediscovered patriotism to the blue backdrop of the main stage, there appeared to be a concerted effort to broaden the party’s appeal rightwards. “Red Ed no more,” was the message. “Vote for Blue Ed.”

2) In terms of substance, Labour are staying red. But look beyond the performances and the stage lighting, and the (few) policies that Labour are espousing are still dripping red. There’s the example I used in my column: the party’s drive towards property ownership is based around more and more spending, and implicitly critiques Thatcher-era policies such as the Right to Buy. But we saw it too in those moments when Labour’s speakers tore up the Tory copybook, such as when Andy Burnham railed against “privatisation” in the NHS. Some of this is Labour staying on their comfort ground but, to my eyes, some of it is more than that. They’re trying to create a new generation of Labour voters by wrapping left-wing policies in centrist, or even right-wing, language.

3) The spreading influence of Jon Cruddas. This was, in many respects, CruddasCon2012. The smart and decent MP for Dagenham and Rainham was recently put in charge of Labour’s policy review — and it shows. He has been encouragng his party to cover traditional Tory ground (such as immigration, Europe and the Big Society) for years now, just as he has been pushing for “a crusade to build homes”. The ‘One Nation’ theme — although it apparently owes much to my old university tutor Prof. Marc Stears — also feels like typical Cruddas, in that it fits in with his search for “political sentiment, voice and language; of general definition within a national story”. One thing to look out for is whether Labour start reaching out more specifically to England, as Mr Cruddas has suggested in the past.

4) Labour still doesn’t have a clear plan for the public finances. As I said before the conference, a thread can be woven through all of Labour’s messages on the public finances — but it’s a tricky task, and it’s not one that the party succeeded in completing in Manchester. What we got instead were the now familiar promises that Labour would cut public spending in future, but when it came to offering some detail … erm, ah, too far, too fast. Ed Miliband didn’t even mention the deficit once in his speech, and his team were quick to slap down Liam Bryne’s suggestion that universal benefits could be for the chop under a Labour government. So much for zero-based thinking.

As a quick side-note: it might be said that Mr Miliband doesn’t need to provide detail on the public finances yet, so far out from an election. But I reckon that we’re now in an Age of Detail, where it’s necessary for politicians to talk about these things more than that might have in the past. My guess is that people are more familiar with concepts such as national borrowing nowadays, and they expect more than easy opportunism.

5) For them, it’s increasingly personal. Labour didn’t just stray onto Tory territory, they wanted to leave some Tory bodies lying in the sand there too. Even Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” speech got stuck into David Cameron — “He’s going to be getting the millionaire’s tax cut” — as it called for unity and understanding all round. Yvette Cooper’s contained an extended attack on Andrew Mitchell, claiming that “Once again it’s one rule for the Cabinet, another for the plebs.” Of course, such is the rough and tumble of parliamentary politics. But it’s also indicative of a wider shift: Labour used to attack the Coalition’s overall policy to cut public spending more directly, now they’re just as likely to attack the people implementing those cuts.