The think tank view
State of play: Labour Richard Darlington, head of the Open Left project at Demos, says Labour must begin a new era with unity
For Labour, this year’s conference will mark both an end and a beginning. On Saturday the leadership contest will be resolved, but the debate about the party’s future will be anything but. The Miliband brothers are well ahead of the other candidates but neither of them will win by much. It’s quite possible that the winner – as with Harriet Harman’s victory in the deputy leadership election of 2007 – will not top the poll on first preferences. Unlike the Tory contest between Cameron and Davis, this election has done more to highlight the similarities between the candidates than highlight their differences.
Since the general election, party members have been engaged in a four-month internal debate that has included more than 50 hustings. But the media has been rather indifferent to the five candidates and the nuances that differentiate their positions.
In late August, however, the contest took a bitter turn when the media, led by The Times, sought to simplify and amplify the difference between the Miliband brothers. The party was beginning to move beyond the binary politics of left v right, new Labour v old Labour, core vote v middle England, only to be dragged back.
Unfortunately, this frame is now set and the alternative headlines have already been written. If Ed wins, the media will hail a lurch to the left and write off Labour’s electoral chances. If David wins, the media will demand he drops his commitments to a high pay commission, a living wage, a mansion tax, a doubling of the bank levy, as well as all those positions he and his brother actually share. The Tony/
“Expect to see the return of women like Caroline Flint and Hazel Blears, and the promotion of Yvette Cooper, as Labour seeks to address its gender imbalance”
Gordon division will be replaced by an ongoing David/Ed battle-of-the-brothers.
Against this backdrop, unity is the order of the day. Labour needs the losing Miliband to demonstrate unswerving loyalty to his brother and both need to demonstrate that they have moved on.
Labour also needs a ‘leadership of all the talents’. Conference will see farewell speeches from Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and probably Alan Johnson. However, a new generation led by Sadiq
Khan, Pat McFadden, John Healey and Douglas Alexander is already beginning to emerge. The shadow cabinet elections will begin just as the leadership election ends and the canvassing of MPs, by MPs, will dominate the bars and cafes of Manchester for the rest of the week. Expect to see the return of women like Caroline Flint and Hazel Blears, and the promotion of Yvette Cooper, as Labour seeks to address its gender imbalance.
It will not be until Tuesday that the media focus will return to the conference itself and the new leader’s first major speech. David Miliband will need to signal a break with the past and show voters that he can take the party beyond new Labour orthodoxy. Ed Miliband will be able to paint on a blanker canvas, but he will need to show voters that he puts their interest first and will not be held hostage by the unions that nominated him.
This media paradigm is important because it is the vehicle Labour needs to use to connect with voters, but it is not the political be-all and end-all. All of the leadership candidates have said that conference should have a greater voice and that the party should be more involved in policy-making. This might help them win the leadership election but, having spent four months focused on party members, the party now needs to look outwards and involve voters in its renewal.
With a greater proportion of committed members and fewer hangers on, this year’s conference will feel very different. The way the party responds to its second worst share of the vote at any general election in living memory could determine how long the party spends in opposition. History is not on Labour’s side. In the 1950s and 1980s the party spent more than a decade in opposition and there is no recent experience of Labour bouncing back.
But the days of governments losing elections rather than oppositions winning them may be at an end. With just 36 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives could not win the last election even against a third term government with an unpopular leader, and despite their seemingly bottomless war chest. As the Lib Dems plummet in the polls, Labour can look towards the next election with confidence and while the next campaign will be a marathon rather than a sprint, the race starts when the baton passes from Brown to Miliband in Manchester.
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64 | Total Politics | April 2010
64 | Total Politics | October 2010