Conference Diary 2015: Labour Party Conference feels like a shadow of its former self

There was an eerie lull around the Labour Party Conference on Monday morning - there's no security to really speak of and not much of a queue to get in, writes Michelle Di Leo of FleishmanHillard.

McDonnell’s speech was received in silence, writes Michelle Di Leo
McDonnell’s speech was received in silence, writes Michelle Di Leo

As a veteran of the time when Labour Party Conference was the largest political conference in Europe and the exhibition filled the Brighton Centre, The Grand Hotel and the Hilton, this feels more like the Lib Dems before government.  

The days when corporate sponsors outbid each other for branding opportunities are distant memories.

The stairs to the conference hall used to be covered in plastic logos, but now a small and slightly apologetic BBC advert appears on a handful of steps: put your foot in the wrong place and you wouldn’t even know it was there.

The morning didn’t get off to the most auspicious start for one colleague, who having risen ridiculously early after the night before for a breakfast fringe meeting, arrived to find it had been cancelled. Some might be wishing the same were true of conference itself.

The atmosphere around the centre reminds me of two boxers bobbing around the ring, circling each other, sizing each other up and looking for shadows over each other’s shoulders.

Fights that were excitedly talked up in the media before conference have not yet transpired. The unions helped ensure that the Trident debate was put off for another time.

The Labour leadership are trying to achieve some semblance of control of the media agenda and the various moderate groupings clearly are not ready to make any moves. Perhaps they all hope to leave conference relatively unscathed and bide their time before the bell goes for the real fight to begin.

John McDonnell gave his first speech as shadow chancellor using Jedi-like powers to suggest there was nothing to see here, move along; all the while giving notice to global businesses such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google that a Labour government would make sure they paid their "fair share of tax"

Together with a review of the mandate of the Bank of England and the working of HMRC, McDonnell sought to rouse the delegates, declaring at one point: "I thought that would go down well," in response to a lukewarm ripple of applause.

Google, one of the few large corporates to have taken an exhibition stand this year, continued to bravely try to engage delegates about the Google Institute.

McDonnell’s speech was received in silence in the sparsely-filled business lounge. Despite the softer delivery, businesses and global inward investors will have heard the message loud and clear.

And his speech coincided with the announcement that the SSI Redcar steelworks is to be mothballed.The two were not connected, but McDonnell’s anti-austerity messages aimed at the Labour "selectorate" in the hall could be interpreted rather differently by the wider Labour-leaning electorate, who according to the latest Huffington Post/Survation poll, are yet to be fully convinced by the new politics. 

Michelle Di Leo is head of public affairs UK at FleishmanHillard 

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