Conference, for many, will have seemed a decidedly small-scale affair on finding a reduced secure zone and a lack of queues when moving through the security checks to get into the Conference area.
However, I believe they will have left with a firm belief that Ed Miliband has got what it takes to be Britain’s next PM. Judging a person’s entire job performance on an annual speech has always seemed peculiar, but it is a good test of whether ‘the performer’ has the nerve to deliver with panache, as well as make some meaningful points.
Others will summarise Miliband’s speech in a deeper and more effective way, but in short, it was a definite attempt to capture the middle ground. This may be foreseeing that David Cameron might be pushed rightwards to placate that side of the Conservative Party, or it may be an acknowledgment from Miliband that this is where a party needs to be to win elections.
In his speech, Miliband showed an understanding of why some may have voted Conservative in 2010, as well as using the ultimatum he issued to the banks as a way of highlighting a commanding strength that Prime Ministers need – something that people have doubted in Miliband.
He still has a long way to go to convince the public, indeed perhaps even to be recognised, but I feel this is the first time when all sides of the Labour Party as one have believed that Ed Miliband can be the next Prime Minister.
But what of the Conference outside this narrow window? How are Labour’s mood and policies developing? Looking at the frontbench as a whole, I got a clear sense that the Party has found a maturity and seriousness that was perhaps lacking at the last annual Conference.
But, moreover, there was an emphasis that the next Labour Government would have to take some tough and uncomfortable decisions. There were no thoughts towards backing unfunded spending giveaways. And in many policy areas, such as infrastructure planning and delivery, social care and aviation, the respective Labour leads all spoke of the need for the Party to participate in a political consensus potentially crucial in the possible event of a hung Parliament next election.
If the mood was one of maturity, with consensus being sought where possible and necessary, what of the policies? Amidst the ongoing Party policy reviews, some ideas are coming out. And interestingly, despite the definite rhetoric to attract the centre ground, Labour’s commitments so far are definitely left of centre.
Maria Eagle has called for a public sector challenger body to be given the opportunity to compete to run rail franchises. Caroline Flint spoke of a desire to take a more statist approach to the energy markets. Andy Burnham has committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act. Lastly, Ed Balls announced the only big spending proposal at Labour Party Conference by stating that if he were in power now, he would use £4bn from the sale of mobile spectrum to fund the building of 100,000 new homes.
However, these proposals are also likely to resonate with the floating voter. Labour has pinpointed such solutions where the public (and the media) has: lingering resentment – the banks; genuinely collective feelings – the NHS; or frustrations as consumers – energy and rail markets.
Clearly, there is more work to better explain in practice what ‘pre-distribution’ and a reformed system of capitalism will entail. Numerous Labour policy reviews are underway and it will be interesting to see if their recommendations fit into this traditionally statist yet populist direction.
So, in closing, what have we learnt from the Labour Conference? First, all sides of Labour, the parties of Government and the newspapers will now be aware that Ed Miliband is a serious and credible Prime Ministerial candidate. Second, that Labour understands the need to project a realistic, costed and often consensual approach to solving society’s problems, and third, that Labour will seek to couch a more interventionist basis for government in a way that directly appeals to the middle ground of British politics.