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Rachael Toon

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Labour Party Conference 2012 - The Mood Before Miliband's Speech

Posted: 02/10/2012 16:25

When I arrived into Manchester for the Labour Party conference on Sunday, I hopped into a taxi and set off for my hotel. At least, that's where I thought I was going. In the end, I was taken to completely the wrong place and had to trudge in the rain for ten minutes to get to where I actually wanted to be.

To draw an extremely tenuous analogy from this, one could say that this is the position the Labour Party found itself in coming up to the last general election. Despite starting its journey off with the best of intentions, it somehow found itself off course. Maybe the driver made an honest error; maybe they should have paid more attention to the directions. But that's another debate.

Whatever the reason, this conference the Party seems to have genuinely acknowledged the mistakes of its past. Political points are carefully made, almost always including the caveat that 'we know we didn't get this right' or 'we know we could have done better on this'. There is a real sense that next time will be different; that in 2015 they will be different, if only the majority gives them that chance.

This doesn't feel like an empty exercise in rebranding and PR. It feels like an acknowledgement that these are very different times to 1997-2010, and that they know that trust in their party's politics has to be rebuilt.

But still, in the days running up to Miliband's big speech there has been a feeling amongst conference-goers that there's not enough substance behind all this sentiment. Labour's lack of solid policy has been well highlighted by others, and this problem remains. At a reception for businesses on Monday night, delegates I spoke to felt that they still didn't know much about the things a Labour government would put in place, not just for them but in general.

In the past, Labour has countered this point by saying that their policy review, which is being steered by Jon Cruddas, is still being undertaken. This may be a fair point, but it doesn't counteract the perception that Labour isn't providing the clear opposition stance on policies that is needed to mark them out as a credible alternative to the current coalition Government. This feeling was summed up by Len McKluskey of Unite urging the shadow cabinet to "step out of the shadows" in his speech from the conference platform on Monday afternoon.

Nevertheless, this conference does feel like a definite step on the road to 2015. The rhetoric is ramping up and there have been flashes of policy in the run up to the big 'Leader's Speech'. Detailed plans, no, but tangible ideas all the same. There has been a nod to the big issues. Access to finance for businesses? Forget Cable's 'Business Bank', here all the talk has been about Labour's Business Investment Bank, differentiated by spending on things like infrastructure, manufacturing, housing and generally 'rebalancing the economy'. Youth unemployment? On Monday Labour launched their Youth Jobs Taskforce. Vague? Maybe, but these things are a start.

I'll wait for the rest of the conference before I pass any real judgement on the shape of Labour's policy. For one, Ed Miliband's speech has only just finished, and it will take a bit of time to see the effect that the announcements contained in it will have, and how they might change public perceptions. Overall, the atmosphere so far is a positive one. You never know, this might just be Labour's trudge in the rain and they'll reach the right destination in the end.

 

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