Party general Secretary Iain McNicol, in his speech to the Labour Party conference, cited Philip Gould’s metaphor that politics is like a game of football without any spectators. The players work hard for every ball, and strain for every goal, but the stadium is empty. The decline in voting across most developed countries, the utter collapse in party memberships, and the low regard in which politicians are held have all contributed to this crisis.
At no point in the year is the ‘empty stadium’ more obvious than the conference season. Apart from a couple of hours at a Tory conference, I’ve only ever attended the Labour Party conference. For over twenty years, I’ve decamped to Blackpool, Brighton, Bournemouth, and latterly to Liverpool and Manchester, to take part in the tribal ritual. Ask me what I can remember about them, and I’d have to think hard. I can remember Kinnock’s speech in 1990, Prescott’s in 1993, Blair’s in 1994, Mandela in 2000, and Bill Clinton’s incongruous appearance in the Blackpool MacDonald’s. There are odd moments, funny incidents and flashbacks to fringe meetings or receptions. It’s a bit like school – after a while all the names, places and faces become jumbled up.
If I can’t remember more than a handful of significant moments, and I was there, what chance has the electorate? For a conference to ‘cut through’ to the public takes some high drama or major event. The IRA bombing the Tories in Brighton in 1984 qualifies, and Kinnock routing Militant, but that’s probably about it. All that effort, so many canapés, all those late nights, the endless speeches – all played out to an empty stadium.
And yet this year in Manchester it felt different. A mid-term conference for a party in Opposition is always a tricky one. Tony Blair used the 1994 conference, mid-term between the 1992 and 1997 general elections, to announce the modernisation of Clause IV, Part IV of the party’s constitution. Neil Kinnock used the 1985 conference, mid-term between the 1983 and 1987 general elections to expel Militant, and break with their fellow-travellers on the ‘hard left’. Ed Miliband came to Manchester with neither a taint of extremism to tackle, nor 15 years of Opposition to overturn. The party has remained united in defeat, for the first time ever. Nor was there a big policy or organisational schism which needed fixing. It was entirely possible for Ed Miliband to give a workmanlike speech which disappeared without trace within minutes of its delivery. Not a disaster of IDS proportions; but nothing to write home about either
But he didn’t. Instead, he delivered a speech which will be remembered for decades, which will define his leadership, and, if Labour wins the election, will be seen as the decisive moment. My mother, who is 80, and who hovers on the political spectrum somewhere around Nick Griffin, thought it a wonderful speech. She phoned to say so. She’s never done anything like that before. I know one shouldn’t judge the whole of public opinion based on our own families, but it can give a clue. The post-conference opinion poll bounce is a surer measure.
It might be that our expectations were flat, so anything half decent would be a pleasant surprise. I was joking in the minutes before going into the hall, that the long queues of people didn’t know what they where queuing for. But it was more than that. It wasn’t even just the memory trick of remembering over an hour of excellent material, without a stumble, hugely impressive though that is. Try it for yourself. In fact, try just remembering ten minutes of material, without the world watching, and without the knowledge that if you foul it up, you’re finished forever. Ed Miliband must have nerves of steel to attempt it.
The One Nation leitmotif, the references to winning in the south of England, to supporting private enterprise and reaching out to new voters showed the bare bones of an electoral strategy which has learned the lessons of New Labour. It killed dead the nonsense that Labour must ‘win back the five million lost since 1997’ (one and a half million of whom are dead). The political content, especially on the banks and vested interests, showed a vision of society beyond the Crash.
There’s something else too. Politics is a zero sum game. For Labour to prosper, the Tories must falter. In Birmingham, they began their decline. They haven’t won an election for twenty years; they haven’t had a new idea for thirty. Cameron had no choice but to speak from behind a podium, with an autocue, trying to look like a prime minister. His days of note-less stage wandering are over. But his speech was useless. Apart from the ‘one notion’ line, itself a reaction to Labour, can you even remember what he said? The Tories’ message this week in Birmingham was simple: we’re right-wing, we hate the Lib Dems, and we want to win the next election. That’s not the basis of an election-winning strategy.
Labour faces a crucial few months now. We need to reach beyond the empty stadium, and into the homes and workplaces of people currently disengaged from politics. These are the months when people are deciding how to vote, not a few weeks in 2015. Speeches don’t win elections. The alchemy between strategy, policy and communications is what wins elections. Leadership is what wins elections. But in Manchester we started to see a glimpse of gold.