Labour Conference 2013: Can Ed Miliband Lift The Mood At A 'Flat' Gathering Of Activists In Brighton?

Labour Leader Ed Miliband during the speech of shadow chancellor Ed Balls on the second day of the Labour Party Annual Conference in Brighton.
Labour Leader Ed Miliband during the speech of shadow chancellor Ed Balls on the second day of the Labour Party Annual Conference in Brighton.

Flat. From MPs to delegates to lobbyists, not to mention news-hungry political journalists, that seems to be the most common word used to describe this Labour Party conference at the seaside.

Forget Manchester and Liverpool - Labour is back in Brighton, which is hosting the Opposition's penultimate jamboree before the May 2015 general election.

The party is ahead in the polls but you would not know it from the mood in Brighton.

The fringe isn't fizzing; delegates aren't delighted. MPs mutter about a lack of leadership and vision and are far from proactive in heaping praise on the two Eds, Messrs Miliband and Balls.

Over the weekend, former Blair spin chief Alastair Campbell warned against the dangers of "complacency".

Complacency? Au contraire, Alastair. Labour Party activists in Brighton can't seem to see the glass as anything other than half empty.

The mood is downbeat, after a summer of negative headlines, Miliband missteps and a glimmer of an economic recovery. This isn't a party whose members seem excited about the fact that it is the bookies' favourite to win power in less than 20 months time. There is no buzz in Brighton.

In the hotel foyers, and out on the seafront, Labour left- wingers complain about Miliband and Balls' caution and conservatism, especially on fiscal policy and financial regulation, while the party's right- wingers continue to maintain that their leader is, basically, "unelectable".

"Do we need to start thinking about what happens if he loses?" says one gloomy Labour figure who happens to be an Ed Miliband supporter, not critic. "Who will our candidate for leader be?"

Let's be clear: Miliband's position is safe. There is no doubt, in Brighton or anywhere else for that matter, that he will be the man leading Labour into the next general election. There is no Labour equivalent of Boris Johnson, waiting in the wings, willing the party leader to fail. There are no plots.

For now.

But the troops aren't happy. Nor are the big guns. From the right, former First Secretary of State Peter Mandelsonian used a column in the FT to call on Miliband to "show boldness" and set out policies that "make sense for business, job creation and investment" in order to win the next election. From the left, Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite union, used a speech in the conference hall to to warn Labour MPs that they would "never ever appease the right-wing media and to try demeans you and our party".

If the party's frontbenchers don't look excited to be at the conference in Brighton, why should the rest of us?

So far, Labour's conference has struggled to command media attention - or front page splashes. There have been few big-ticket announcements. The weekend pledge that firms hiring skilled foreign workers from outside the EU would also have to provide local apprenticeships has started to unravel, with it becoming clear that EU workers would be also be eligible for those apprenticeships and the skills minister Matthew Hancock claiming such a move might be illegal. The proposal to guarantee 25 hours of free chilcare a week has been welcomed by campaigners - but dismissed both by the Tories and by the centre-right press as yet another Labour spending pledge. As for HS2 - is Labour for or against the high-speed rail project? We just don't know.

The pressure will be on 'The Leader' - as he bills himself if Damian McBride's new memoir is to be believed - to lift the mood in Brighton on Tuesday afternoon, with a strong and substantive address to the massed ranks of MPs, peers, delegates and journalists in the conference hall. Aides tell the Huffington Post UK that he will outline for the first time, and in detail, what a 2015 Labour government would do "in its first 100 days" in office, and set himself up as a champion of the 'squeezed middle'.

The problem, of course, is that we've been here before. A year ago, at the party conference in Manchester, Ed Miliband delivered a widely-acclaimed speech - 65 minutes of snappy slogans ('One Nation Labour'), clever policies (on education and apprenticeships) and personal 'colour' ("My family hasn't sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years") and all, astonishingly, without any notes or a teleprompter in sight.

Yet, as a friend of the Labour leader concedes, "there was no follow up. Nothing. This year has been really bad for him."

Hence, here we are in Brighton at a 'flat' conference. For once, the old cliche might just be applicable: the leader of the opposition has to give, yes, you guessed it, 'the speech of his life'. If, that is, he wants to send nervy Labour delegates home with a spring in their step; energised, enthused and, above all else, optimistic about 2015.

Whether a single speech will win him the next election, however, is another matter.

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