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Looking North at Labour Conference

30/09/2015 16:45 BST | Updated 30/09/2016 10:12 BST

Like most people I attended the Labour Party Conference in Brighton not really knowing what to expect. Would the mood feel like a celebration or a wake? What policy positions would emerge? And what would Jeremy Corbyn focus on in his first speech?

In particular, though, I went to Brighton in search of Labour's response to the Northern Powerhouse, the economic devolution agenda being driven by Chancellor George Osborne.

Given that Labour has allowed the Conservative Party to steal the march in the devolution agenda with the Northern Powerhouse, I was reassured even before stepping off the train in Brighton that the event schedule had a selection of events on the issue. Even better, the debate at conference provided a lot of clarity on the party's thinking.

New Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Jon Trickett, confirmed Labour intends to adopt a three-pronged approach to the Northern Powerhouse.

First, Labour will help those Labour councils currently locked in talks with the Government about securing additional devolved powers. Second, Labour will oppose the current path of devolution: a piecemeal approach which Labour argues will create an asymmetrical constitutional settlement. Trickett argued there was no contradiction between these two objectives. Third, Labour will put forward a new devolution model based on a bottom up approach, rather than top down. More details on what this will look like in the coming months.

Elsewhere, 'investment' was a word that came up time and again in discussions on the Northern Powerhouse. Corbyn said the UK was suffering from an "investment crisis". The pausing of the planned electrification of the Manchester-Leeds rail line, partly due to a lack of funding, has been a headache for Osborne in this respect.

Just last week the chancellor was in China appealing for inward investment to boost the Northern Powerhouse. He knows that to prove he is serious about devolution he needs to find ways to promote investment in the North.

The mood in Brighton on the Manchester-Leeds electrification seemed more upbeat than I expected, with a number of Northern Labour figures sounding fairly confident that their campaign to embarrass Osborne had been a success. This optimism proved correct when Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced the work would resume shortly before Labour left Brighton.

It's also impossible to talk about the Northern Powerhouse without a discussion on George Osborne, given he is so closely tied with the project.

Needless to say there were plenty of less than kind words said about the chancellor across Brighton. Accused of "scheming" in secret by agreeing deals with no transparency, a number of people I spoke with see the Northern Powerhouse as nothing more than a way of delegating the responsibility of implementing further austerity over the next five years. After all, fiscal devolution isn't on the table at this current time.

Labour's relationship with Osborne is more complex though, which was on display in Brighton. Jim McMahon, Labour leader of Oldham Council, rejected the notion that Labour councils were being used by Osborne. He even admitted that by dealing with Osborne, Greater Manchester is actually boosting his chances of becoming the next Conservative Party leader by showing the chancellor can reach beyond the geographic comfort zone of his party.

Former Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, speaking in Brighton said Labour should not simply say the Northern Powerhouse is a smokescreen for further cuts. Such an assessment missed a more complex picture, Hunt argued.

These more moderate voices highlight the current tension between two of Labour's stated aims around the Northern Powerhouse: supporting councils achieve additional powers while at the same time criticising Osborne's overall approach.

I'm sure Labour councils will be encouraged to hear that Corbyn will support them in their bid for greater autonomy. However, it remains to be seen how the party will manage internal disagreement when Osborne starts making offers to local Labour councils that deviate from the views of the party leadership.

Corbyn said during his speech in Brighton the party would adopt a mature approach to developing policy, capable of internal disagreement. This is the new politics Corbyn has promised. Watching the relationship between the national/local party as part of the Northern Powerhouse will be a good gauge as to whether this can be achieved.