From the party conference: Labour is on the rebound

Publicly, yesterday saw a bravura performance by the shadow chancellor that in many ways epitomised the resilience of the Labour Party.

Picture Credit: Thinkstock
Picture Credit: Thinkstock

Cocky, provocative and combative, Ed Balls’ well-rehearsed speech received a heartfelt ovation from a conference hall that was in the mood for a bit of a fightback after a frustrating summer hiatus and a pre-conference battering in the press.

In the much-loved soccer parlance of Labour’s macho political culture, this is the attitude of a squabbling Premiership team that somehow rushes the opponent's goal to score with a minute to go. It’s the determination of the heavyweight fighter who climbs back on his feet and slugs his way to the final bell.

Tories are terrible panicky, as Cameron and Osborne often complain, and Lib Dems are frighteningly pragmatic. But Labour has soul.

They might be worried about support resting on the seafloor of its core vote at around 29 per cent.

But there’s optimistic talk that they can chisel bits and bobs from elsewhere.

Lib Dems from the Social Democratic wing are probably up for grabs, many of them in target Labour seats, which might provide an extra 5 per cent.

There are blue-collar voters who have fallen out of the voting habit, who might return if concerns about immigration and tone are addressed, contributing another 2 per cent.

And first-term attrition might liberate a couple of per cent from reluctant Conservative voters who held their noses in 2010 but will not get past the odour of austerity in 2015.

With the sun beating down on strategists planning the next election on the terrace at The Grand hotel, 40 per cent and a full-fat victory seems a possibility.

But it was a different story behind closed doors. In the privacy of high-security private parties, gloomy shadow cabinet members confess they have few hopes for the general election.

Their focus is the performance of Ed Miliband, regarded fondly by most but with a degree of resignation about voter-impact.

Today he will seek to step back from knockabout politics and take a moment to "tell his story".

This is the third conference he’s tried this trick, and yet people do not seem to connect with his narrative.

"He may not be a Clinton or a Blair, so we will have to sell him as a team package," one strategist tells, with little confidence in his eyes.

And elsewhere, the ubiquitous Chuka Umunna is the darling of the Fringe.

At yesterday’s worthy Fabian event, they were hanging from the rafters for his thoughts on, of all things, shareholder democracy (zzzz).

He is the loyal interpreter of the leader’s message on Newsnight, while simultaneously carving out his own narrative on "responsible capitalism".

What is interesting about the Chuka phenomenon is not his vision of Britain – he travels unburdened by serious policy content.

Nor is it his life story, a middle-class upbringing in a legal household and school days in the choir – hardly as compelling as, say, his inspiration, Barack Obama.

What is interesting is his quite reasonable confidence that Labour is still relevant for Britain’s future.

The implication of the Chuka phenomenon is that no fundamental rethink of the New Labour proposition is required. No existential threat lurks on the horizon (as the Tories face with UKIP and 1980s Labour faced with the Social Democrats).

It’s that feeling of confidence that gives Labour the feeling, despite all the problems, this is Premiership team on the rebound.

James Bethell is director at Westbourne Communications.

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