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By Peter Hoskin
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I’m
sure you’ve already got your remote control poised, the TV guide internalised,
perhaps even a holiday booked — and all so you can avoid Labour’s party
conference when it starts tomorrow. But, for those foolhardy few who plan to
tune into Mr Miliband’s Manchester Meet-up, I’ve produced the below list of ten potential themes and leitmotifs. They may appear, they may not, but they're worth looking out for.

1) “Borrowing’s
going up”.
The charge that the Coalition is mismanaging the public finances
will be the one that’s most frequently made from the stage in Manchester; and
this idea, that “borrowing is going up”, will probably be the most significant
component of it. We’ve heard this a lot from Labour recently — often in the
context of “They’re cutting spending, growth is flat-lining, and still…” — so
it’s worth dwelling on more than any other entry in this list.


In
truth, this attack has been around, in one particular form, for at least a year
now. It started when, thanks to weaker-than-expected growth, the Office for
Budget Responsibility had to revise its forecasts for public borrowing
upwards. Borrowing was still going down, year-on-year, over the course of this
Parliament, but it was higher each year than originally advertised. Here’s a
graph to show the effect, comparing OBR forecasts from the past three years:

Graph

Of
course, Ed Balls seized on this with glee, declaring that “The Tories are
borrowing £x billion more than they said they would”. But, while he’d sometimes
describe this as what it is — “borrowing forecasts going up” — he’d also
frequently, and conveniently, forget to add the word “forecasts”. And thus the
impression might have accidentally been created that the Coalition was going to
increase borrowing over this Parliament…

But
the attack has gained new momentum recently, with the release of certain monthly borrowing figures. These suggest that in, say, June this year,
public borrowing was higher than it was for the month of June last year (£14.4
billion compared to £13.9 billion). What’s more, when certain distortive
effects to do with Royal Mail pensions are removed from the equation, borrowing
was higher in April to August this financial year than it was for the
corresponding period last year. And so, taken in snapshot, borrowing might be
said to be going up.

But
what about over the whole Parliament? Borrowing is still expected to be
significantly lower in 2015 than it was in 2010, but the picture in between is
slightly muddier after the release of the latest monthly borrowing figures last week. They
revealed that the Office for National Statistics (NB. not the Office for Budget
Responsibility) has revised down its figure for borrowing in the last financial
year, 2011-12, such that (at £119.3 billion) is it now lower than its forecast
for borrowing in this financial year (£119.9 billion).

Of
course, what this shows is that the borrowing figures are endlessly revisable.
And it could be that, when the OBR releases its forecasts to accompany the
Autumn Statement in December, this will all have resolved itself. But Labour
aren’t going to wait: they’ll take whatever figures they can get and extend
them to bursting point. As they do, it’s worth remembering that borrowing
— and the resultant debt — would have been even higher under their
plans.

2) “We’d
have to cut, too”.
If you’re going to attack Mr Osborne for not getting the deficit
down, then it helps if you talk about getting the deficit down yourself. This
is what Labour seemed to realise in January of this year, when they admitted
that they couldn’t promise to reverse Coalition spending cuts should they
triumph at the next election. And they amplified the sentiment yesterday with
Ed Balls’ announcement that an incoming Labour government would undertake a “zero-based
review”

of every item of government spending. These are fine words, and no doubt they’ll
resurface in Manchester — but the problem, as Tim pointed out, is
precisely that they are little more than words. Balls is asking the British
public to take it on trust that Labour would crack down on spending after 2015.

3) “Too
far, too fast”.
But this, if it’s wheeled out, is where Labour’s message gets really
messy. It’s not that “too far, too fast” cannot be resolved with the two points
above: Labour’s position is something like a) were they in power now, they
wouldn’t be cutting spending by as much as the Coalition is, b)this could
actually help get the deficit down, by improving growth, and c) but they would
set about spending cuts with zero-based gusto after the next election. But the
fact remains that they’ve never managed to weave these threads together
persuasively. What it generally sounds like is an argument that cuts are bad
but — by golly! — we’d implement them. This comes across as both contradictory
and opportunistic.  

4) LibLabbery.
After once
calling the Lib Dems a “disgrace to the traditions of liberalism”, Ed Miliband
and his party have now struck on a friendlier official line: sure we’d work
with you, they say, but please do ditch that Clegg chap first. This has reached
apogee recently, with all the back-and-forth speculation about Vince Cable, and
I’d be surprised if it didn’t continue in Manchester. We already know that Mr
Miliband will concentrate on some Lib
Dem-friendly themes
; but what would make it particularly interesting is if
he also highlights some specific areas of potential cooperation, perhaps including
media
regulation
.

5) Tony
Blair (and/or David Miliband).
The divide between the Brownites and the Blairites — which can be mapped on to the divide between the Ed-ites and the
David-ites, although they’re not quite the same thing — still festers in the
Labour party. Ed Miliband has worked to heal this tension recently, including
by appointing Mr Blair as an advisor on the Olympic legacy, but much more could
be done. On the Labour leader’s part, a more persuasive message about deficit
reduction and greater pride about New Labour’s reform agenda might help. On
Blair and David Miliband’s part, a few kind words about Ed’s Labour could also go
a long way. But, of course, there’s a flipside to all this: any sign of
internal dissent could rock the Labour leader’s conference. Given his personal
poll ratings
, he will not want the old idea to resurface, that Labour would
do better without him.

6) The
Brown years.
When Ed Miliband first became Labour leader, he gave a speech that was dripping
with praise for Gordon Brown. “I am proud to call him my friend,” is how one
line began, “We should pay tribute today to Gordon Brown for his leadership of
our party and our country.” Yet we haven’t heard much more of that since, as Mr
Miliband has slowly preferred to distance
himself
from the Brown years. Will he go further with this distancing
process in Manchester? It would certainly be one way to respond to CCHQ’s new
anti-Labour poster
, which seeks to aggravate the ‘Son of Brown’ theme. Even
now, Labour strategists might be finding another
bell
for Mr Brown to ring somewhere, to keep him out of the country.  

7) The
unions.
As
it is with Gordon Brown, so it is with the unions. Ed Miliband was carried to
the Labour throne by the brothers’ votes, but he’s sought to take a few steps
back from them since. His speeches to TUC conferences have been careful to
criticise
the strikes
. He has made
sure
to follow appearances at trade union gatherings, such as the Durham
Miners’ Gala, with appearances in the City. He will no doubt strike a similar
balance in his rhetoric in Manchester, as he tries to speak out to people beyond
the confines of the conference hall. But doubt
persists
about how substantial this really is, given that all the formal
ties between Labour and the unions still remain. If Miliband really wanted to
make a splash (and help unclog the current impasse over party funding, thereby
appealing to Lib Dems), he’d do something like back
an “opt-in” political levy
for union members.

8) Boris.
Okay, so we
can probably expect a cascade of Nick
Clegg-style style jokes
about Boris and the Tory leadership. But can we expect something
more? Labour’s Douglas Alexander has twice in recent interviews, with the New
Statesman

and with the Evening
Standard
,
warned his party to take Boris seriously. The question is whether this will be reflected
in the attacks that Labour make from Manchester, whether on Boris directly or
on his policies for London.

9) Blue-skies
blather.
If
Mr Miliband thinks it through, I doubt we’ll hear the word “predistribution” in
Manchester — but the thinking behind it will surely feature. It
is, after all, the Labour party’s Big New Idea and, beyond the off-putting
name, it cannot
just be dismissed out of hand. Yet Miliband has never lacked for political
theories for Westminster’s wonk community to dissect; his problem is turning
them into political proposals that actually mean something to the average voter, which
brings us on to…

10) Policies.
I was
tempted to write “only joking” for this entry because, as we know, Mr Miliband
has been a bit policy-shy since taking over as Labour leader. However, I
decided against it because this could be the conference where that changes — if
only slightly. After all, surely Mr Miliband realises that the absence of
detail is one of the greatest, most persistent weaknesses of his leadership.
And, besides, his two-year policy review — originally presided over by Liam
Byrne, now by Jon Cruddas — should soon be at an end, and might already be
yielding a few concrete
proposals
.

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