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Labour Party Conference - Rallying the Activists

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REFOUNDING LABOUR
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Last year, the mood at Labour conference was tense. There was a residual acrimony in the bars, left over from the long and bitter leadership election, and many at the fringe events were tetchy.

It wasn't that the Milibands themselves held any bitterness. It was their supporters: sometime friends and recent opponents, Labour activists who'd spent their summers campaigning against one another in pursuit of party influence.

This year, the mood is lighter. Old friends are reacquainted now, and - for the most part - hatchets are buried. The politics of togetherness are somewhat more pronounced in Liverpool than they were in Manchester, where internal lines of tribe had been clear. For better or worse, in 2011 the Labour Party is blurrier than it was in 2010.

Whereas last year's conference was defined along dividing lines, this year there are at least some things for activists to rally around. Iain McNicol, Labour's new general secretary, gave a passionate speech about a modernising party growing in membership. He was received warmly, and given a standing ovation. His addition to the party leadership will lead to important developments.

Even Refounding Labour, the consultation designed to overhaul the party's tired campaigns organisation - and one roundly ridiculed in recent months - is gaining popularity. Support for its findings and recommendations was stitched up on the conference floor last night: it was a sycophantic non-debate, but if the intention was to gain endorsement from cynical activists, the strategy worked.

And yet something is missing from conference this year. Gone is the urgency which defined Brighton 2009, or the passion which was so evident last year. There is little forward thrust about the party right now. Activists are beginning to reconcile to the notion that those heady days of government are gone, perhaps not to return for some time.

Party loyalists - special advisors and machine hacks - are looking ahead to the political wilderness, and many have begun looking to their own careers rather than focusing on their seniors. One former aide was overheard yesterday noting that any observable camaraderie in Liverpool is little more than the "unity of the graveyard."

There are important discussions occurring in the margins, of course. Will Labour be able to work with Liberal Democracts in the future, and, if so, how? How will Ed Miliband reconnect his party with the public? What should be the party's answer on welfare reform? But the energy of previous years is dissipating, perhaps understandably.

I saw a questionnaire yesterday, which asked what the most controversial moment of Labour conference this year would be. The biggest danger is there will likely be none. Ed Miliband has a rare opportunity to rally the troops to a common cause with his leader's speech tomorrow. It will need to be a barnburner if Labour's spirits are really to be raised.

Alex Smith is a former aide to Ed Miliband, former editor of LabourList and consultant to Champollion Digital.