Monday, 23 September 2013

Unsettled Labour looking inwards..

Ben Brogan's morning briefing..

Good morning. The first thing to say about Labour conference so far is that the party is finding it hard to dominate the headlines. The Labour leader didn't manage to get the splash in the Observer yesterday, and neither Ed Miliband nor Ed Balls has landed a big statement into this morning's papers. True, they aren't helped by the Kenya hostage crisis or the German elections, but even without those two big events there's no sense of an electrifying announcement or statement that has set the political world alight. Mr Balls is instead having to argue the toss about his OBR/manifesto idea, while Labour is trying to clean up the confusion over its immigration policy. Mr Miliband's Marr performance has been criticised, and the debate in the bars of the Metropole and Grand revolve around the party's difficulties: can Mr Miliband improve his standing with the voters, when will the reshuffle be and who gets sacked, what to do about the leader's back office operation. The party is looking inwards because it is unsettled: press senior figures and, whatever the polls may say, they doubt whether they can win in 2015. The second thing to note though is the effect of the Damian McBride revelations. Mad Dog/McPrickface (delete as appropriate) will be in town today for an outing on Newsnight that will ensure dinners are finished early. He's also doing Boulton tomorrow apparently.

Ed Balls has just come off Today where, to a chorus of dropped marmalade and spluttered coffee, he claimed he didn't know what Mr McBride was up to until he read his book extracts. Quite extraordinary. The consensus last night seemed to be that overall the revelations will not change the weather for the party. I'm not so sure. 'What did you know about McBride?' is the question every member of the Brown circle must answer. Mr Balls is denying everything, which will be noted across the party. His chances were never good, but this must kill him off as a credible leadership contender. Tessa Jowell has called on Gordon Brown to make a statement. Others too will be asked to say what they new, from those now working for Mr Miliband, to those named in the memoirs, to the others from Mr Brown's inner circle: Spencer Livermore might have plenty to say for example, or Shriti Vadera. Today's extracts for example lay in to Alistair Darling and his advisers. What happens if he decides to put the record straight? Or Catherine Macleod? What if as some suggest someone does decide to investigate the possibility that Mr McBride has confessed to criminal offences? It is possible - just - to imagine Labour's recent history being unravelled for all to see. By the way, if you have a Mail handy today's extracts are full of remarkable detail about Mr Brown's temper tantrums and how the only way to quiet him was to have an even bigger tantrum yourself. The most telling though is his accont of falling out with Mr Miliband, who, like Hal the deadly computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, cut him off, allegedly for lying: 'I gave him his victim status'. As I say, it is too facile to dismiss all this as the past. For Labour, there is plenty of present to deal with.
In the meantime, there's no shortage of advice for the two Eds. Peter Mandelson pops up in the FT to warn Mr Miliband that he must move on from defining himself as “not Tony Blair”. Lord Mandelson writes that "Mr Miliband’s brand and message need to be recast for the age of social media, and he needs to show boldness and political artistry in grabbing his share of attention." Chris Huhne calls on Ed to "bury Labour's instinctive tribalism", telling him that "Most Lib Dems (including MPs) wanted – and still want – a coalition with Labour, but there will have to be a genuine fit of plans and programmes to make a centre-left coalition work." Steve Richards thinks that voters still can't recognise Ed's strengths: "Voters may disagree with what he is offering them. That is a different matter, but it should be beyond contention to point out that he is unusually experienced for a leader of the opposition and “strong” in the sense of being politically brave. But before Ed worries about any of that, perhaps he should readMichael Deacon's take on his Marr interview: "I don’t know whether the Self-Interview is official Labour policy, but no doubt, as with everything else, Mr Miliband will be setting out his position at the election. "
Today sees Ed Balls' speech to the Labour conference, an event that many view as being almost as important as Ed Miliband's offering tomorrow. It's all going to be about "iron discipline" in practice. The most important aspect will be requesting that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility audit his plans for the country. The problem with this is that it will require an overhaul of the watchdog's charter. Sajid Javid has already branded the idea "a stunt to try and distract attention from the fact that Labour have been found out for making unfunded commitments".
Mr Balls will try and be seen to challenge his party, admitting that “The next Labour government will have to make cuts too” and reiterating his pledge that there will be no more government borrowing to pay for day-to-day expenditure. The key differentiation with the current plans are that Labour support bringing forward investment in house-building and infrastructure spending, and that Mr Balls will say new savings could be made by means-testing winter fuel allowances (means-testing free TV licenses was not deemed to save more than it would cost) and that more money could be raised by tackling tax avoidance and increasing taxes on hedge funds.
But perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser will concern a proposal to give working parents of three and four year olds in England 25 hours of free childcare a week - an extra ten hours. This would be funded by an annual banking levy of £800m. 
And Labour is also facing questions over policies it has already announced at conference. Labour's announcement that it would tighten immigration laws in its first year has already come under scrutiny, with the announcement that firms would have to train a "local worker" for every foreign worker brought in undermined by Labour conceding that the new apprenticeships would be open to all EU citizens. There's an interesting splash in the Times about a plan by Jon Cruddas to stop child benefit for parents who cannot prove that their children have received MMR vaccines. Or perhaps not so interesting after all, with Labour taking to Twitter to say that "this proposal is not part of the policy review." 
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for Labour cheer is that, while Ukip fragments the right, the left is relatively united. But the Greens are trying to shake that up. A billboard on the Brighton seafront reads: "Welcome to Brighton. Home of the true opposition in Parliament." Incase the message isn't obvious enough, the billboard ends - "PS - Labour is down the hill on the right". 
Ed Miliband's attempts to distance himself from Damian McBride have been undermined by, erm, Mr McBride himself. "Ed didn’t particularly care whether I was guilty or not; I was just a convenient person to blame", says Mr McBride in the latest extracts from his book. During Labour's period in government, Miliband and McBride shared "four years of real friendship", and Ed is said to have distanced himself from McBride only after his part in the 2007 botched election was revealed. Elsewhere, Mr McBride describes Alistair Darling as a "catastrophically inept" chancellor and says that it would be disastrous to recall him to the Labour front bench. Mr McBride also admits to smearing John Major and Norman Lamont over Black Wednesday, while he was still a supposedly neutral civil servant funded by the tax payer.
Ed took a break before the bedlam of conference began by going for a family stroll along Brighton beach. It was certainly more relaxing than what his Shadow Chancellor opted for: Labour were thrashed 4-0 by the journalists in the traditional football match, despite Mr Balls' best efforts.
Andrew Mitchell may not be able to reclaim his legal fees over the Sun's "plebgate" story. The high court told Mr Mitchell that the cost of his libel action will be restricted to the cost of the court fees - around £2,000 of the total of £1 million costs that Mr Mitchell's side could face - reports The Guardian.
Dave is facing another Twitter problem after staff using his account favourited a tweet from a user mocking Norman Tebbit. An unfortunate mistake.
In the Telegraph 
Colin Freeman - A new source of terror
Best of the rest
Peter Mandelson in Financial Times - What Labour needs to do to win the next election
Chris Huhne in the Guardian - How Labour can win
Dominic Lawson in The Daily Mail - It's not one Mad Dog. The tribal Left is driven by hate 
Labour Conference:
Britain's Global Role with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis
Chuka Umunna speaks on Works and Business 

Ed Balls speech on Stability and Prosperity