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Published on September 30th, 2014 | by Chris Cooper-Davies
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Labour’s 2014 Conference: a modest success, not a cataclysmic failure

The media have been unduly critical of Labour’s 2014 Manchester Shindig. Of course, there were mishaps aplenty- some bad, but there were also policies aplenty- some refreshingly progressive and all- counter to popular belief- fiscally responsible. Far from a disastrous opening to Labour’s general election campaign, therefore, the conference can be branded a modest success, a good- solid- opening statement for a long and grueling job interview with the British people.

The criticisms have not been entirely unjustified. Ed Balls should have honed in his aggression on the football pitch, and Milliband’s speech could have been more thoroughly rehearsed and- perhaps- ever so slightly shorter. His recitation without notes was commendable, although only in the way it is commendable for a child to remember the exact order of a pre-shuffled deck of cards. While his constant name dropping of ordinary people he’d met travelling the country was nice- at first- before it became cringy.

Faults aside, however, the speech and conference delivered policies, and solid, coherent policies at that. A six point plan for the future of Britain which included: promoting apprenticeships; tackling the cost of living crisis; restoring the dream of home ownership by building at least 200,000 new homes by the end of the next parliament; tackling low wages by raising the national minimum wage to £8 by the end of the next parliament; and saving the NHS through a multi billion pound make over which, among other things, will slash GP and A&E waiting lists. Gone is the empty rhetoric of One Nation Labour; back is the substance of a party on the brink of power.

And not only is the plan substantial, it’s also fiscally responsible. Yes, Ed has been lampooned for not mentioning the deficit in his speech and it is true that, at the moment, the British public are sceptical about his reliability when it comes to the economy. But, as he pointed out the next day defending his deficit blunder on BBC breakfast, he did make it clear all planned investment in the NHS under Labour will not involve more borrowing; it will be paid for entirely by a mansion and tobacco tax. Moreover, even if Miliband’s forgetfulness did affect the credibility of his speech, Ed Balls’ crusade against fiscal irresponsibleness certainly rectified any confusion. His commitment to administer the nation’s finances within their meager means and continue- to some extent- austerity was clear.

In many respects, it is testament to the quality of Labour’s six point plan that criticism of Miliband’s speech centers almost exclusively on his decision not to explicitly mention the deficit. For one must assume that, had he voclised the brief one line declaration of Labour’s commitment to deficit reduction which was included in the written transcript of his 5,000 word statement, there would have been very little wrong with the performance for Ed’s critics to use against him.

Of course, it was not a rousing, nation spurring conference or speech. It had nothing on Labour’s 1996 rally cry. But unless you have the momentum of 17 years grueling Conservative governance behind you; almost a national consensus for change; and a figure head with the charisma of Tony Blair propelling you forward, conferences rarely are. Labour’s 2014 plan has substance. The conference was not- as many in the media and on the right have since painted it- a cataclysmic false start in the run up to the general election; it was a solid opening volley.

But more importantly, perhaps, it was also not only an appeal to Labour’s core voters and the left leaning Lim Dem dissidents Miliband expects to be sweeping up next May. In other words, it wasn’t simply a ‘jump to the left’, even if such a jump, if it were to happen, would likely be enough to secure Labour’s vital 35% of the vote. At this conference, Red Ed, echoed whole heartedly by not so red Ed Balls and ex city man Chuka Umunna, was appealing to the middle classes as well.

For as Cameron is pushed further and further to the right by the rise of UKIP, who have already stolen two of his MPs, middle class Tory voters, who see Cameron and his friends- and them alone- as the acceptable face of the Conservative Party, will be forced to take their vote elsewhere. With the Lib Dems political dead meat they’ll look to Labour tentatively, and assuming they can see past Miliband’s forgetfulness, they’ll have no reason to dislike what they see.

Because while the new policies appeal to Labour’s core vote, the Party is not alienating those it de-alienated in 1997. Their commitment to fiscal responsibility; to building more houses nationwide and thus allowing the squeezed middle a real and un-traumatic chance of home ownership; and to look out for the self employed and small businesses, mean Labour are not abandoning those it wooed in the mid 90’s. They’re simply treading a path between them and a section of their core vote they arguably did abandon. This path is the polar opposite of that trod by David Cameron at the last election. If it won him a coalition, it should do the same, if not more, for Labour.

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MA history student at SOAS

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