Last year the prize for weirdest party conference was won by UKIP, thanks mainly to the antics of Godfrey Bloom. The Labour conference, meanwhile, was a huge success – with Ed Miliband’s announcement of an energy price freeze catching the public imagination.
This year the positions were reversed, with UKIP making hay with defections and looking forward to by-election glory. In Manchester, though, it was amateur hour – literally, in the case of the Labour leader’s big speech, which lasted for sixty minutes because the would-be Prime Minister forgot the other twenty. It was emblematic of Labour’s wider failure to set out its stall as a government-in-waiting.
The impression given is of a party that’s only interested in its core vote – something reinforced by its bizarre refusal to run a proper campaign in the either the Clacton or Rochester by-elections (both of them seats won three times over by Tony Blair).
Labour’s lack of ambition is noted by Godfrey Bloom’s old sparring partner, Michael Crick, in a post for his Channel 4 News blog:
“Labour argue that Rochester isn’t one of their 67 target seats. Maybe not, but until 2010 Rochester was a Labour seat, helped by the famous maverick Bob Marshall-Andrews.
“Instead Labour will run a low-key campaign like Newark or Clacton. Ed Miliband and most leadng shadow cabinet members will put in appearances, but the party will really just go through the motions hoping to shore up as many Labour votes as they can. They’ll spend a budget of about £25,000, similar to the £25,272 they spent in Newark, barely one quarter of the permitted £100,000.”
A reasonable case can be made that seats like Newark and Clacton are now out of Labour’s reach. Rochester and Strood, however, is in a more winnable category:
“What a boost it would give Labour to come through the middle and beat both the Conservatives and Ukip. It would restore dreadful party morale after the huge disappointment of the party conference in Manchester. By-election gains are always a great indicator of whether a party is on its way back to power.”
Crick argues that Miliband’s failure to give it a go leaves his party “looking incredibly cautious, unadventurous and feeble.” But that doesn’t mean that Labour’s lost the plot. In contrast to the text of his conference speech, Miliband is sticking faithfully to his core vote strategy.
The fact remains that as long as UKIP stays strong and the Lib Dems weak, Labour can win the next election on 35 per cent of the vote. Ed Miliband knows he is no Tony Blair. And so does his chief backer, Len McCluskey. Both men also know that the shifting electoral arithmetic has given them a chance to win as ‘core vote Labour’ and therefore a mandate (however miserable) to govern as ‘core vote Labour’.
Mary Riddell, who is lefty-in-residence at the Telegraph, laments what both Labour and Liberal Democrats have become:
“With a general election only months away, Labour and Lib Dem travails are not simply conference debris. Instead, they beg a more existential question. Is Britain staring at the death of the Left? That doomsday scenario cannot be ruled out. If Labour’s attempt to resurrect itself in one parliament proves to have been a dead cat bounce, then the party may face years in the wilderness. For the Lib Dems, the future could be even bleaker. Liberal England died a strange death in the last century. Once again the grave-diggers are standing by.”
The Lib Dems do indeed look done for. The same can’t be said of Labour just yet, but it’s winning, not losing, the next election that could prove fatal. By campaigning, and then abortively governing, as a core vote party, it’s difficult to see any scenario which doesn’t end-up with Labour voters feeling betrayed and the rest of the country seething with utter contempt.
The left wing vote could well fracture, with UKIP eating into traditional Labour support and the Greens become the party of the metropolitan left. Meanwhile, under a new leader, a revived Conservative Party could rally middle England (with the Lib Dems clinging on in remote corners).
Perhaps our politics will come to resemble the Polish model – in which the two main parties are both on the right (one mainstream, the other populist) and the left is weak and divided.
That could be fun, but we’d have to live through a Miliband government first, which wouldn’t be.