The big six questions which may or may not be answered at Labour Party Conference next week

Ahead of the Labour Party Conference in Manchester next week, Connect’s Steve Barwick looks at the big six questions which may or may not be answered.

1. Is Ed up to the job of PM?

With his personal popularity again being questioned what will his response be this year? On Tuesday afternoon we can expect him to make a supreme statesman-like effort to prove that Labour will rebalance the books and can be trusted on the economy. Also expect some clever announcements designed to shift Labour’s fortunes in policy areas where they are weak and to position Ed as leadership material.

2. What’s the story, morning glory?

Students of politics like to talk about the need for a meta-narrative and it is certainly the case that people – the public – need to ‘get’ what a political party stands for: it can’t all be negative point scoring. Arguably the Conservative’s failure in 2010 to settle on one clear story – preferring a muddled mix of hoodie hugging,  talk of big society and vote blue, go green etc. – was a central factor in their failure to win a majority. Blair’s New Labour in 1997 was so good at crafting a strong narrative that he ended up with more MPs than he know what to do with. Will Labour’s story, above and beyond the One Nation narrative adopted last year, become more explicit and ultimately more effective? That may depend on a more fulsome acceptance of its failures in office (including deregulation of the City and believing its own rhetoric about ‘the end to boom and bust’) as well as clearer trumpeting its successes (not just reviving a dieing NHS but bailing out the private sector at a time of economic crisis, albeit at huge cost to the public sector).

 3. What is the answer to the West Lothian question?

Whatever the referendum result, the cause of devolution has won the day. Whether Scotland opts for devo max or independence it will inevitably bring back to Westminster the one question that is as intractable as the infamous Schleswig-Holstein Question about the diplomatic relations between two neighbouring duchies. On that question, Lord Palmerston is reported to have said: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.” Ed Miliband may also want to forget the somewhat inevitable solution to the West Lothian Question (that Scottish MPs – including the 41 out of the 59 who are Labour – should not be allowed to vote on English matters such as the NHS) but it is a question that is bound to be asked many times in Manchester next week.

 4. Is voting for 16 and 17 year olds the future?

Another inevitable question that will emerge from the referendum result will be whether lowering the voting age to 16 was a success, given Labour have committed to lowering the voting age if they win the election. The referendum turn out amongst this age group will be heavily scrutinised as well as the proportion voting yes. If the views of 16 and 17 year olds do not at all reflect the overall trend there would be an argument that they are too immature to vote.   If more 16-17 year olds vote “Yes” does it prove that they are more likely to vote for change and more likely to vote Labour than Conservative in the future? Will lowering the voting age therefore be confirmed from the Labour conference platform as legislation for the first Queen’s Speech?

 5. Will there be a big announcement on the NHS?

With the recovery underway – although of course not felt by all – and Ed needing a big idea or two, Labour need to major on the NHS, which we know from polling is the third most important issue for voters and the one issue which the public put their trust in Labour more than any other party. Andy Burnham’s rhetoric about building an NHS and social care service fit for the twenty first century has the power to enlighten and inspire. It would also cost a lot of money as the other Ed (Balls) knows only too well. He also knows that profligacy is one accusation that Labour needs to squash heavily. But that the NHS needs more money is an inescapable fact. Will the two Eds square the circle by finding more money and clawing it back from somewhere else – surely not from the already overspent bankers’ bonus tax though! Or will Ed be really brave and contradict the establishment rule that public spending as a percentage of GDP must decline, make the case for the NHS and offer the voters a real choice at the next election? Perhaps the fact that the health debate is not scheduled to Wednesday is a little clue.

 6. Could Ed ever agree with Nick?

The most likely result of the next General Election – based on current polls – is a thin Labour majority but the Westminster commentariat (including this one!) think the polls will narrow, making a hung parliament and a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition more likely. Will there be indications in Manchester of whether Ed could work with Nick in a coalition government – or would one condition of the negotiations be that he resign? If he were to, presumably Vince Cable could request that he is made Chancellor which would at least solve the potential problem of the two Ed’s repeating all the mistakes of the Blair vs Brown years. Coalition government is, of course, something that won’t make the conference platform next week, equally the tensions between the two Eds – but there will be hints and speculation for sure.


Lora Shopova