The Labour Party has ‘lost the will to live’ and resembles nothing so much as a football team that desperately needs to raise its game to avoid being relegated from the Premiership, said Chancellor Alistair Darling on the eve of the party conference in Brighton this week.
He may well have been speaking figuratively, but his comments still cast a dark shadow over the conference that no amount of brave talk from the podium was able to dispel.
This was the week when the party leadership hoped to inspire the rank and file membership to face what Business Secretary Peter Mandelson called ‘the fight of our lives’, or, more accurately for their political lives as an Ipsos Mori poll conducted on the day Gordon Brown made his keynote speech put Labour in third place on 24% for the first time since 1982. That may have been the intention; the reality was that the conference merely paraded on a very public stage the problems Labour has struggled with for the past two years.
The largest of these problems is the leadership style of Gordon Brown; despite his notorious difficulties with communicating with party and public alike his previous two conference speeches have been successful enough to give his approval ratings a short term boost. In the first he managed to convince starry eyed party activists and cynical media hacks alike that he really did represent a change from the politics of spin and sound bytes, in the second he saw off the challenge to his leadership presented by David Milliband and Harriet Harman.
The lift both speeches provided was, of course, only temporary, in 2007 he flunked calling the general election that would have given him a real mandate to govern and after the 2008 speech came a year of scandals, slip ups and increasingly odd behaviour that overshadowed his expert handling of the financial crisis. This time there was no discernable lift at all and the speech that could have bought the party a little much needed breathing space only served to add to their problems.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Having Brown’s wife Sarah introduce his speech, a big success last year mostly because she seemed to be almost the only un-spun individual in the entire conference hall, fell flat this time round because after a year of being photographed with Michelle Obama and Bono Mrs Brown no longer resembles a wife thrust into the limelight to stand up for her misunderstood husband so much as yet another cynical PR operator trying to work the crowd.
Brown’s delivery also fell flat, his call for party activists to ‘dream big and watch our country soar’, sounded cheesy and unconvincing delivered by a man who had spent much of the week having whether or not he needs anti-depressants to get him through the day debated by the media. The Prime Minister did his cause no favours on the day after his big speech by exhibiting signs of extreme stress when he stormed out of an interview with Sky’s Adam Boulton, for him at least, it seems, the dream long ago turned into a nightmare.
Brown’s speech also demonstrated another problem faced by Labour, too many policies and too little idea of how they might be delivered on before the next election. He announced, amongst a slew of other plans and initiatives, ten hours of free child care for families on ‘modest incomes’, a £1 billion ‘innovation fund’ to help businesses during the recession and, most controversially a plan to house teenage single mothers in shared houses rather than council flats where they would be given support and parenting advice by social services. Few of these announcements were new, how they might be paid for in a time of severe constraints on the public purse was a mystery, but still they came pouring out in the hope that one might catch the public mood and deflect a little of the criticism being heaped upon his beleaguered government.
Traditionally party conferences in the run up to an election are an opportunity for the leadership to stiffen the sinews of their troops ahead of the trials to come; at least they are for parties with a decent shot of winning. For Labour this week was something else, it was an unwelcome confirmation of what they knew all along, the party is exhausted by twelve years in government, bereft of fresh ideas and deeply unhappy within itself. Like a battered heavyweight it may yet claw itself upright using the ropes, but will only be knocked down again.
Symbolic of Labour’s declining fortunes was the decision taken by the Sun newspaper, the in house journal of the UK’s ‘white van men’, to withdraw the support it has given to the party at every election since 1997.
Party veteran Margaret Beckett said the Sun’s change of allegiance was a ‘problem’, but not an ‘insurmountable’ one, union boss Tony Woodley ripped up a copy of the paper on the conference platform and won a standing ovation and, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Gordon Brown said ‘In the end we like the support of every newspaper, you’d like to have the support of lots of people that are not giving you support, but it is people that decide elections.’
However brave the tune there no doubt that Gordon Brown et al are still whistling in the dark. The Murdoch press may have less power to influence public opinion that it would like us to believe, but it has a near unswerving accuracy when it comes to reflecting what the public think. As the Sun’s headline ran on Wednesday morning ‘Labour has lost it’. Lost touch with the public mood, lost touch with its core values and, it looks ever more likely, lost the next election.