Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Callum Jones

GET UPDATES FROM Callum Jones

A week in Liverpool; the Labour Party Conference 2011

Posted: 30/09/11 01:00

As I look back at my initial hopes for the Labour Party this week, it's safe to say that none of them quite came true.

This event in Liverpool gave Ed Miliband and his team a number of opportunities. I wanted Labour to advertise some of their strong Shadow Cabinet members, because they're perfectly competent but most are yet to gain a high profile. I wanted Labour to start producing some specific alternatives to the government policies that they are so strongly against, because criticism on its own will not give them the constructive reputation that they need. I wanted Labour to emphasise that it's eighteen months on from their stint in power and that they have changed as a party, with a new leader and a completely new approach to politics.

Did I get my way? Well ...no. However, I am more confident than I ever have been that these things will happen in the imminent future. Although this week hasn't given rise to a perfectly-formed, productive opposition party, it has built a platform to reach that description.

Day one on Sunday started the Conference on a high note for Ed Miliband. He made the front pages following his "promise" that if he was in power at the moment, he would cap annual student fees at £6000, as opposed to the current coalition policy of £9000. Naturally, those who noted this story will remember it for his proposal of cutting student fees, but there is, regrettably, a catch. Miliband made sure to wriggle out of any questions about this policy appearing in the party's election manifesto. When I caught up with Liam Byrne- a key member of Labour's National Policy Forum and Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions- he told me that the suggestion was an idea that was being considered, but it was "a long way from being set in stone". So, it's not really a "promise". I could "promise" that if I was in power at the moment that I would enshrine a ban on Marmite into law, but I'm not.

On Monday, it was the turn of Ed Balls to make a key-note speech. The scheduling was extremely timely, at a moment when the world economy is beginning to flounder. His general performance was quite poor and we are still yet to hear any core economic approaches from Labour since they were thrown into opposition. Nevertheless, Balls' speech included something refreshing to hear from any politician; an apology. In fact, there were a few. Granted, there will always be those who thrust their right hands firmly into the air and declare that he didn't go far enough, but he actually admitted to making mistakes in power. The next day's press may have slightly lost focus though, with photos of sixteen year old conference first-timer Rory Weal being splashed after his fantastically passionate speech on stage. That's what delivery gets you when publicly speaking, and I wish him the best of luck.

Tuesday was day number three and brought with it the chance for Ed number two to take centre stage. He came out fighting, following Nick Clegg's speech in Birmingham last week, and it was clear from the outset that he was not going to let this opportunity pass him by. There is one fundamental difference between writing the conference speech of a leader in government and writing that of leader out of government; an opposition leader has a huge amount more freedom to say what they like. They can use the great platform of live terrestrial broadcasting and front page reports to say pretty much whatever they want to the world because their substance is not tied down by the rollercoaster ride of being in power. This liberty makes some fall, and some thrive. It is undoubtedly the making and breaking of an opposition figurehead. Ed Miliband did not fail to deliver on Tuesday.

He may not have produced the firm pledges I was personally craving before the conference kicked off, but he created a springboard so that he could in the future. He modestly highlighted the key achievement of his first twelve months at the helm of Labour; his performance in the weeks following the "hackgate" explosion. He decisively outlined his passion for protecting what he described to me on Wednesday as a "major priority" of his; the NHS. He made the usual Nick Clegg gags, but they were reasonably amusing, to be fair. He admitted that a key issue for his party to tackle over the next months and years will be "regaining people's trust on the economy", a monuments task kick-started by Ed Balls' apologies the day before. He's no Obama when it comes to delivering speeches, but he is certainly improving.

The organisation and planning of Labour's conference this year was fantastic. The Conference Committee had really thought outside of the box and consequentially put together a week with numerous fantastic ideas. The two that I was most impressed by took place on the penultimate day of proceedings. Wednesday was "Open Day" at the Conference; the first of its kind in the history of British politics. The doors of the ACC were thrown open to the public so that non-party members could quiz MPs about key political issues like society and the economy. Politicians were equally as keen to listen, though. "Isn't it great to see everyday people having the opportunity to ask us questions directly about things that matter to them?" Hilary Benn enthusiastically said to me after one session about rights and responsibilities.

Another event taking place on Wednesday was "The Young British Talent Showcase". It aimed to improve the name of young people in society, following the battering youth culture took from the press during the riots in August. Hosted by the hilarious and extremely kind Eddie Izzard, the event gave five acts the opportunity to give presentations about their skills. Numerous high profile Labour figures popped their heads though the door, and I would like to specifically acknowledge the fact that Labour's new General Secretary Ian McNicol, was the only one to stay for the entirety. He is just the force that the party needs at the top with Mr Miliband. I will say three things about the hour I spent in the auditorium watching the session. Firstly, it was amazing to see an opposition party show enough initiative to create such a fantastic event. Secondly, I was astounded by the confidence and talent demonstrated by the speakers; all five gave the Eds a good run for their money. Finally, and most importantly, I walked out at the end of the showcase feeling proud to be young for the first time in a long time. Us "youths" can have a good name, and mark my words; we will.

My highlight of the whole week was undoubtedly Ed Miliband's Question and Answer session on Wednesday. In these scenarios, he is definitely at the top of his game. His hesitation and nervousness at some one-to-one interviews is miles away from his confidence when being questioned in front of and by approximately a thousand people. When he entered the stage, he wasn't just enthusiastic; he seemed psyched to be there. He faced tough questions, that he had verbally requested, about his stance on the legalisation of drugs, pensions, student fees, disabilism, and his brother, David. His answers were firm, decisive, even witty at times, and his general performance was undeniably impressive.

I made a point of watching the session in the Main Hall with a group of union delegates, because I wanted to gauge what they thought of his performance. They were happy with his speech on Tuesday, but were ecstatic following his question session on Wednesday. He singled out the unions on numerous occasions and emphasised the important role they have in the future of the party. Nick Clegg criticised the pally relationship Miliband has with the unions in Birmingham last week, and David Cameron is, no doubt, planning to do the same in Manchester from Sunday. The close relationship between Labour and the unions cannot and should not be denied by anyone. The most prominent exhibition stalls were run by unions. The vast majority of conference attendees were union members. I've been given a grand total of sixteen union-sponsored pens, yoyos and bags this week, so I'm certainly not complaining. Even our pass lanyards were sponsored by a union. Both sides should tread carefully, but this relationship is tight and beneficial for everyone involved.

On the subject of freebies, a kind member of the Sky News team handed me a pack of their Political Top Trumps. As any attendee of a 2011 Conference will know, these are the top of the free-stuff food chain this year. The basic idea is genius, but if you don't mind, I'm going to go and get my head around the fact that David Cameron has been awarded a score of 81% for "fanciability". There goes my dinner.

Two down, one to go. Bring it on, Manchester.

www.callumjones.blog.com

 

Follow Callum Jones on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CallumJonesBlog