Before Ed Miliband stood up to speak on Tuesday, there was a real risk that this conference would be as flat as the metaphorical pancake.
Or a bottle of coke with the lid left off.
There were high points of course, Ed Balls gave an impassioned speech on Monday, and although I missed it myself, Michael Sandel’s lecture (not a usual thing to do at a party conference) seems to have enthused those who were there for it. But this was looking like an unremarkable mid-term conference, right up until the point at which Ed Miliband strode out onto the stage. Relaxed, confident, no notes. A conference which will be remembered – if for style rather than substance – for years. Conference lifted immediately from that point. For the first time I’ve started to see the benefit of a Tuesday leader’s speech – conference was buoyant for the next twenty four hours.
That buoyancy has also been reflected in Labour’s polling, and perhaps more pleasingly still, Ed Miliband’s own personal polling. He’s still behind Cameron on some of the key indicators, but he has closed the gap with the PM significantly. That might mean that – temporarily at least – we can stop talking about whether or not the leader is a drag on the party at the ballot box. And it’s no longer inconceivable to regard Ed Miliband as a potential PM in waiting, except now it’s not just the likes of me who think that – the change of mood amongst the travelling press circus has been palpable.
Last year I watched as some of the lobby got into a huddle to compare notes on how rubbish Ed was. This year they walked briskly back to the press room, each one wanting to be the first to file a report on Miliband’s surprisingly impressive speech.
So is this a turning point? Perhaps, but it’s important not to get swept away in the hyperbole and excitement that can surround conference.
It was a good speech – one of the best for several years – and not just because it was an impressive mental feat. It had vision, and even a little policy. But that doesn’t mean that it will neccessarily be a “game changer” or alter the fundamentals of where the country is at politically. We’re probably still in the same position we were before conference – ahead by a narrow margin. We won’t be able to say any more than that for a few weeks. Like the budget six months ago, we’ll need to see how this plays out and unwinds in the press – not least with Cameron responding next week.
It also wasn’t the kind of game changer that will have people talking in their local pub or around the water cooler about Miliband. The impact will be more subtle. But now that he’s winning the press over, getting a hearing will be easier. And that could shift the perceptions of the electorate in the long term.
What might have been a real game changer is if David Miliband had returned to the shadow cabinet. At the start of this week I noticed that Mili-D was far more visible this time than the last two conferences. Last year he dashed in to attend a few fringes and then scarpered. This year he was sat outside the conference centre having coffee with Labour Students, and relaxing in the hotel bar with friends and staff. At first I suspected that this might be a ploy from the elder Miliband to normalise his presence at conference ahead of a later return. Now? The more I hear on the conference rumour mill, the more I suspect David might have been showing the opposite – that he’s not bothered about people noticing him. That there’s nothing mysterious about his conference attendence. And that perhaps he isn’t coming back after all.
Even a week ago that might have concerned me. I thought that Ed needed something – like the return of his brother – that would get him and the party “over the top” before the election. Now, although I still think we’re doorstep policy-lite, I don’t think that’s the case. For now, Ed Miliband is probably where he needs to be. He has defined himself, and put some of the concerns about his ability to inspire and lead to bed. And as much as a Mili-reunion would be good for the party and the country, I’m not sure he needs that anymore. He has the potential to put the party “over the top” on his own.
That, for me, is the legacy of this conference.
But a game changer? Ask me in six weeks…