Conference is over, Labour have a new leader, and it turns out you can’t rely on the weather in Wales. The question, however, is what have we actually learned this week? I say we: I didn’t go to conference. This was in part because I thought on balance finishing my never-ending PhD seemed a greater priority, but also because I knew that whichever Miliband won, the story would be the same. Broadly speaking, those who supported the winner are happy and those who supported the loser aren’t*; an exercise in academic psychology it ain’t. But I also thought that whoever won, there would be the same call to unite behind the leader, to think that the mere process of producing a leader would be a panacea, and that all we have to do now is say the right things and wait for the Coalition to spontaneously self-combust before sweeping into Number 10 with all the smoothness of Roger Moore in a dinner jacket.
The thing is, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that the Lib Dems can be easily detached from the Coalition or that the spending cuts in and of themselves will lead to a double digit Labour majority in 2015. In short, the Lib Dems are more invested in this than we give them credit; not only is it patronising to assume that Lib Dem voters are actually just deluded Labour voters or that the Lib Dems are some repository for Old Labour values, it ignores the fundamental ideological point that Liberalism can and does exist distinct from either Social Democracy or Conservatism. The idea that the Lib Dems will simply disappear at the next election is fanciful; besides, the Coalition’s strategy is precisely so masochistic now in order to allow time for pre-election tax cuts later. The strategic and tactical problem for Labour in all of this is that whilst the cuts are taking place we’ll probably enjoy pretty healthy poll leads, and in this context there’ll be an understandable urge to go for a safety-first approach rather than question why we had our worst general election result for generations (and no, I don’t think it was Iraq, tuition fees or electoral reform).
For my part, I think we’ve underestimated (or worse, wilfully ignored) the concerns of many of the voters we need to be winning over. Whilst it’s now fashionable to talk about building more social housing, there’s not been a whisper on increasing the rate of private home-ownership; this in spite of the fact that most people want to own where they live (and importantly, want their children to be able to do the same). Whilst we mouth concern about the economic impact of immigration, there’s no appreciation that a large part of people’s concern focuses on identity, specifically a sense of identity-crisis amongst the white working class following the demise of heavy industry. And whilst we talk about patriotic duty, many of our activists still sneer at houses draped in the England flag betraying a real cultural dislocation between the party and those we aim to represent.
To sum up, I’m no more or less enthused than I was at the beginning of the week; I never planned on watching the Ryder Cup and I didn’t vote for Ed M. Nevertheless, I hope the coming weeks and months allow for an open and honest exchange of ideas about what the Labour Party is and who it hopes to represent; at the moment, I’m not sure it knows the answer to either of those questions…
*As a declaration of interest, I voted 1. AB, 2 DM.