All is calm in Liverpool. Unlike last year’s Labour conference in Manchester, ripped apart by fratricide and the gloom of being in opposition for the first time. Or the year before that – in Brighton – when, despite looming defeat, delegates were gripped with election fever. (Akin to the music-playing on the Titanic ahead of its final plunge.)
In recent years Labour fought against the inevitability of eventual electoral defeat with no regard to the internal collateral damage. Now its people have realised that government is at best a long four years away.
There is no overwhelming sense of disunity. For sure, the Blairites and the left-wingers still disagree on which direction to take the party; but without the viciousness of the past. Out of power and without a policy platform such arguments can only be philosophical rather than practical.
Nor have there been personal fisticuffs. I’m told that David Miliband considered staying away altogether to avoid negative coverage. In the end he dropped in for a day and made a plausible display of loyalty to his brother. This morning we saw Ed Balls describe Ed Miliband as a “friend”. (The reality may be closer to ‘frenemy’, but relations are better than they were eight months ago.)
This does not negate the fact that the party still faces considerable hurdles.
1] Ed Balls has promised “tough decisions” to bring down borrowing and has pledged “tough fiscal rules” to bring down borrowing in the future. But how does he square this with up to £20bn of new spending on growth measures this morning? Kiran is crunching through the numbers and will report back later today.
2] Labour is reconciled to its leadership. Six months ago it was easy to find MPs who were unhappy with Ed Miliband at the helm. They worried about his lack of star quality and low profile. Now it’s hard to find mutterings of dissent. Yet Labour is only a few points ahead in the polls. It is enough to prevent a coup against Ed but not enough to reassure the doubters who think that Labour should be further ahead in the polls – given the squeeze on living standards across the country.
3] Can Ed’s team reforge the conventional political wisdom that the “middle ground” – where elections are won or lost – lies in aspiration alone? Miliband’s speech (being rewritten late into the night by a team of four advisers) has a big theme of ‘a new settlement’, in which he will say that Thatcherite reforms were right for their era – but not for today. The few policies which have been set out this week are all about helping the ‘squeezed middle’ with their fuel bills, transport costs and tuition fees. The money will mostly be found by hitting banks with new taxes, as far as I can work out. With the City still in the public doghouse this seems a feasible strategy – but will it appropriate for 2015? The beauty of politics is that by then Labour’s policy platform will have gone through several more alterations. Thus, you might surmise, the mood of relaxation - or resignation – around the Albert Docks this week.