John McTernan: Labour withholds ticker tape

No special introductions for Labour's shadow ministers at the conference. Picture: Getty
No special introductions for Labour's shadow ministers at the conference. Picture: Getty
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Gordon Brown was absent from the party, and so were any obvious celebrations, but that could all change next week, writes John McTernan

There were two missing ingredients at Labour Party conference this week. The first was the man everyone wanted to thank – Gordon Brown. He was in New York this week so was not able to attend the Scottish Report on Monday.

Either bureaucracy, lack of imagination or malice – or, knowing the Labour Party, all three – meant the timetable wasn’t changed to fit the great man in. This was a huge mistake. The referendum hung over Labour conference all week.

People were torn between celebrating a famous victory – after all it is the first national vote Labour has won in nine years – and being angry about Cameron planning to play politics with the English Question. The appearance of Gordon would have been cathartic. The roaring, stamping, screaming standing ovation would have exorcised all doubts and hesitation. And the old time religion would have transformed the beginning of conference.

This is linked to the second missing ingredient – the certainty that leads to celebration. This was a very flat conference. And it wasn’t clear whether this was because there was an implicit decision that there should be no triumphalism in advance of what is likely to be a very tight election. Avoiding, therefore, the accusation of “taking the voters for granted”.

Or if, in fact, it attested to real doubts. Whatever the cause, the contrast with 1996 – Tony Blair’s pre-election – was immense. No introductions for shadow ministers as “Britain’s next secretary of state for...” No jubilation. None, that is, until Andy Burnham barnstormed his way through the speech of the conference on health and social care. Presumably he was watching the referendum and all the fake emotion the SNP generated over the NHS and thought “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

None of this is fatal. In the end the new policies announced by Ed Miliband cut through to the voters and have proved very popular in polling. Miliband has his frame for the next election.

Not “together” versus “on your own” but the more visceral “the Tories are for the rich, Labour is for the NHS”. And there was huge vibrancy on the fringe. David Cameron may have thought he played a blinder in announcing that he favoured English votes for English laws (EVEL) but this produced an upsurge of creative thinking on the conference fringe.

There were passionate debates about powers that could and should be devolved to cities and regions. There was the more prosaic, but very powerful, intervention of Rutherglen MP Tom Greatrex who has pored over the last 400 bills passed by parliament and identified the sum total of eight, yes eight, English laws. Labour’s grass-roots are healthy, energetic and organised. A lesson and an example to the leadership.

The Tory conference, which starts on Sunday, will be a stark contrast to Labour’s. It will be stage managed to within an inch of its life. David Cameron will be at his most prime ministerial – that is, after all, his main card in the contest with Ed Miliband. No matter that being PM logically makes you the most prime ministerial in any given contest, this will be the test Cameron seeks to set. Let’s just hope he doesn’t do the whole “Look, I’m speaking without notes” schtick. Partly, because it is so stale. But mainly because it isn’t even that special. Ordinary voters speak without notes all the time – they just call it “conversation” – and they don’t expect to be wildly cheered for doing so.

The general election campaign proper will kick off at the Tory conference. I know, I know, it already feels as if it has been going on all this year in the zombie parliament which has run out of legislation. But the real “long campaign” starts next week. The Tories will place a huge premium on their economic record. To be fair to them, both jobs and GDP are growing fast.

But so far this is a voteless recovery. The Tories have an iron ceiling of 33 per cent in the polls. Their conference is the last chance they have to directly define their message and appeal to Middle England – it’s the one time of the year that what Cameron says has to be broadcast unadulterated.

Expect two things from the Tories. There will a bombardment of facts and figures about the economy and how well the UK is doing. It will be powerful and relentless, but will it work The problem is that everything that Cameron and his Cabinet have to say is aimed at the head not the heart. This is the rub. The voters are hurting. They are happy that there is a recovery – who wouldn’t be, the alternative of no recovery is much, much worse. It’s just the recovery is not showing up on their high street or in their pockets.

They don’t want a lecture illustrated with graphs, instead they want empathy. But Cameron and Osborne can’t say they feel voters’ pain for that would be to concede there actually has been some.

Instead you will hear a lot about the deficit. And probably a lot of jokes about Ed Miliband’s memory which will be achingly unfunny though fair game. The problem is that harking on about the deficit is just a way of saying that there are way more cuts to come after the next election. That may not actually be that popular. People’s patience with austerity may be over. And there is, anyway, a contradiction in the Tory proposition. Rejoice, they cry, the economy is booming. Great, cry the voters, austerity is over.

Not so fast, reply the Tories. Confusion then reigns in the electorate’s mind – why does it have to be tough if we are doing so well?

Two parties. Two conferences. Two circles unsquared. The scrappy stand-off that is modern British politics will still stand in a week’s time.

The real political news is elsewhere. Ukip are looking for two by-election scalps – in Tory Clacton and Labour Heywood and Middleton.

Things may look very different in just a fortnight.