Labour Conference: Playing things Safe, but not Sound

Posted on September 26th, 2014 by David S. Moon

In the wake of this week’s Labour party conference, questions have been raised about Ed Miliband’s leadership and how the party can secure a majority at the forthcoming general election. In the first of our party conferenc blogs, David S. Moon at the University of Bath looks back at Labour’s missed opportunities for taking the lead on constitutional reform in the wake of the Scottish referendum.

Safety First

Having had time to digest this week’s Labour Party Conference, a serious question: What did the party hope to achieve at this year’s annual gathering? With May 2015 only eight months away, activists may have hoped that this, their last great gathering before the campaign, would act as a rally to rouse the faithful and a shop-window for the policy program they could finally enthuse about on the doorstep. That did not happen.

The phrase which has best summed up the conference’s mood has been ‘flat’ – shadow ministers going through the motions, playing things safe. If it was not for the extremely moving speech by Harry Leslie Smith there would not have even been the prerequisite video to pass around on social media – and even that speech was a defence of the NHS, the most comfortable of Labour issues.

However, whereas Smith’s speech brought tears to the room’s eyes, Ed Miliband’s led to tittering among the media listening, then open ridicule once it was realised he had “forgotten” to mention the deficit and immigration. Unconscious or not, these omissions emphasised the softly-softly, safety-first message mentioned already – all about protecting the NHS, offering votes at 16, but no more mentions of the mass reorganisation of British capitalism. Nor was there any effective attempt to deal with the elephant in the room – the fallout from the Scottish referendum.

By Donald Macleod from Stornoway, Scotland. (Labour Out??.) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


It was the question “Can anyone build a better future for the working people of Britain?” according to Miliband, which underlay people’s decision to vote to leave the Union and would be the question of the general election also. The take-away from the independence campaign was thus one of British-wide social policy, not the constitution. While there is no doubt truth in the first proposition, the second seems in part wishful thinking and once again a symptom of Labour’s increasing safety-first posture.

Labour want to fight the election on inequality, the NHS, the cost of living, it does not want to end up arguing about the English question. “The best answer to the English question is not to ask it!” the old (Labour) quip goes, but putting fingers-in-ears and pretending people aren’t asking it anyway isn’t an answer either – and certainly not when your opponents are giving an answer, plastered all over the front-pages.

David Cameron’s decision to link the question of devolving further powers to Scotland with the implementation of English Votes for English Laws was a masterful piece of statecraft. As far as answers go, it is obviously partisan and practically unworkable: As long as the somehow-still-standing Barnett formula means that any change in spending in England impacts spending in the devolved regions, there is almost no such thing as an ‘English only Law’. But by tapping into a desire among an English media and public, weary from weeks of listening to the complaints of Scots, to finally get to raise their own complaints of unfairness, Cameron calmed his own internal dissidents and got the drop on UKIP.

Clearly placed on the back-foot, Labour ‘fluffed’ their reply, calling foul and trying to explain that “the NHS is the real issue!” As The Guardian’s John Harris noted, even at the conference there was only a single fringe panel which debated the issue. That a constitutional convention is the best route forward is without doubt correct – but by offering no opinions, while trying to park the debate, Miliband simply looked panicked and weak.

Not Listening

All of this must be especially frustrating for Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Labour leadership. As he reminded conference in his own leader’s speech, for two years Jones has been explicitly warning that a No vote would raise huge questions for the Union and calling for a convention. The fact that Labour’s Westminster leadership still do not appear to have seen this coming, do not have an answer, and are now trying to change the subject, means they somehow managed to miss this, or simply decided to ignore him. The “vow” to protect the Barnett formula which penalises Wales at the same time it benefits Scotland – and the hasty but unclear promises to find a means to still fudge a funding increase following complaints – again demonstrates a particular tin ear to Welsh interests and debates.

Hopefully, Miliband has found some time to read over Jones’s speeches, because the time has clearly come for the British – especially the English – to have a serious conversation about the constitution in a way they have never felt they had to before, even in the face of an independence referendum. There are too many loose ends now and muddling through will no longer do. The Union is still in danger – not least as the prospect of a referendum on an EU exit will surely lead to calls for another Scottish referendum (even if an illegal one, as in Catalonia).

Labour want to play it safe, want to talk about what they want to talk about – they want a nice clear left versus right fight next year. Yet it will be difficult to promise “One Nation” politics without questions about ‘the nation(s)’ being raised. So what was the point of this week’s Labour conference? Too late, the Conservatives have the stage now and seem prepared to use it.



Dr Moon Is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses upon ideological power relations within political parties in multi-level systems of governance. Publications in this area have had a particular focus on the Labour Party, and Welsh politics post-devolution.

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.

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