Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Yet Another Conference Season

That's it, then. The three main parties have done their conferring. And are we any further on?

Well, the Liberal Democrats came and went pretty much without anyone noticing. Which is probably as much as they can hope for at this stage. I still think they're going to do better in the next election than many are currently predicting, but that's not going to be achieved by conferences; it'll be because of the work they put into the constituencies where they're strong.

The Labour conference was dominated entirely by Ed Miliband. His speech managed to avoid mentioning his shadow cabinet colleagues, pretty much avoided the Labour Party entirely, and had nothing to say about a number of issues that some people consider quite important: immigration, for example, and education, and crime...

But he was busy selling himself and he made a decent fist of it. He doesn't look like a prime minister in waiting, doesn't even look much like a convincing leader of the opposition, but he did enough to keep himself in the job. And he saw the Labour Party enjoy a little rise in the polls.

And that's more than David Cameron is going to have achieved with his speech today. He wasn't exactly inspiring, though he did tick all the boxes Miliband ignored: he celebrated his team (George Osborne, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague, Boris Johnson all got mentioned) and covered a wide range of policy areas. He also tried to revive his old 'let sunshine win the day' persona. Despite which, he was clunky and unimpressive.

None of this is going to be remembered by the electorate in a month's time, let alone in eighteen months as we head into the election campaign. But it feels to me like Cameron still has the better narrative: Labour screwed up the economy, we're not done fixing it yet, give us the chance to finish the job. Miliband's account - it's only the rich who are benefitting - is strong, but I'm not convinced it's enough.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all the dullness, the most entertaining story by a considerable margin has been the spat between Miliband and the Daily Mail. And I've been enjoying that enormously. It's trivial nonsense, of course, but it's fun. So much so that, for the first time in years, I actually watched Alastair Campbell on television; normally I find myself switching off whenever he makes an appearance.

Just to be clear: both sides are in the wrong. Having made repeated reference to his father, Miliband has no real right to complain when his opponents decide to make the man an issue. And the Daily Mail's interpretation of Ralph Miliband displayed little insight into the subtleties of Marxist thought. Nor did they turn up anything worth reading: a teenage diary-entry and an attack on public schools and Pall Mall clubs isn't exactly conclusive evidence.

What's revealing is where this story is playing big. The Guardian led on it today, while the BBC took it very seriously, all the way down to Radio Five Live having an hour-long phone-in on the subject this morning. Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph and The Times didn't seem much interested. Which would seem to suggest that everyone realizes that Miliband is likely to be the winner here. There's nothing to be lost from attacking the Mail.

Because the Daily Mail long since overtook the Sun as the favoured target for the left (in the widest sense of that term). And mostly what this conference season has been about is both Labour and Tories trying to shore up their core constituencies: the half-hearted price controls of Miliband, the home-ownership and married couples tax-allowance of Cameron.

At the last election, nearly sixteen million people who were registered to vote decided not to bother. Neither party seems very sanguine about winning over any of those people. Instead they're keen to keep their own supporters on board, calculating that it'll be enough. And maybe it will. After all, in 2005 Tony Blair won an election with the endorsement of barely one-in-five of the electorate.

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