One year into opposition and at this year’s party conference, in Liverpool, you can just detect the beginnings of a sea-change. There is a rustling in the wings of opposition. Delegates only have to look at the slimmed down exhibition stands (M&S and Tesco are the only private sector exhibitors here, outside the commercial media.) They only have to experience the cut down security which led to massive queues for the conference centre this morning.
The party suddenly feels like it is more distant from power. As Ed Miliband walks through the conference there is no mob of photographers. He is accessible, although I’ve yet to see him stop and chat. That too is new – the whole front bench is more available, less caught up in the paraphenalia of power. Inevitable I guess, but odd to see when you know what went before.
This is not a dangerous phase for the leadership in truth. There are many critical voices off, but as yet they have to find much strength. David Miliband has been studiedly careful in his choice of language, and made a sharp exit to the US after day one. Tessa Jowell and other Progress MPs have said that more politics, less policy, is required which cuts across the leader’s view – but this is portrayed, rightly, as healthy debate. The Purple Book, Blue Labour, Labour Left are all contributing to an argument about the future which for now does not seem to include the wider world. Refounding Labour appears to have landed without much criticism – or inspiration.
I suspect that this introspection is inevitable. But there are some bright spots too.
The one politician who has so far impressed is Ed Balls. His economic report, and particularly his call for voter friendly measures like 5% VAT on home improvements, and the additional bankers levy hypothecated against jobs and training are clever measures aimed squarely at George Osborne. That is opposing. Making a big attempt to get the Government to move, by using what leverage you have. Balls does this well, and the party appears to appreciate it.
So I detect a slow shift, an intellectual effort, and a recognition that opposition is a new art for this team. Look out for a lot more “community activism” stories – whether this play with voters will be an acid test as to the success of the leadership. For my money these programmes have an urban bias, and are too woolly and big society like at the moment – they are also very slow burn.
What is urgent is for the leader, Ed Miliband to define himself on Tuesday. It’s a vital moment for him.