Three Days Closer to a New Politics?


The 11.00 am from Euston to Manchester is heaving with politicos and hacks: a nod here, a hug there. The trip starts well with the man opposite leaning over to say that he had read Talking to a Brick Wall over the summer and really enjoyed it. Feel very chuffed.

At the Conference Centre there are already long queues stretching around the exhibition stands (fewer corporates and more campaigning groups reflect the harsh commercial realities of opposition).

I settle with tea and a sandwich in a café, and watch as all five candidates and their entourages sweep by. Broad smiles all round. They won’t all be smiling by the end of the afternoon.

It’s twenty five years since my first Labour Party Conference and I think they’ve been playing the same tape of eighties ‘inspirational’ music in the hall ever since. The atmosphere is tense.

When David Miliband’s final vote tally is announced it is clear that Ed has won, but there are no celebratory whoops, rather a stunned silence from both brothers’ camps.

Much later, as I head off to bed, David’s campaign team are settling into a corner of the bar of the Midland Hotel for a long night of commiserations, while the Ed team, equally exhausted, are already working on first drafts of the big speech.<!--more-->


Up early to Harriet Harman’s Women’s Summit. A room big enough to hold 150 had been booked back in the summer, but the delegates just kept on coming. On the day, the meeting was in the Town Hall, with 800 women registered – still so over subscribed that nearly that many again were turned away. Harriet, after her successful stint as acting leader, is the hero of the day.

Harriet has asked me for a polling presentation. I talk about the importance of the women’s vote. I update on voters’ views of the coalition government: it’s been a much shorter Honeymoon than Labour’s in 1997. Recruiting focus groups by September of that year, I simply couldn’t find anyone who would admit to voting Conservative.

Dozens of women activists queue patiently to speak. Then Oona King and Diane Abbott talk about their experiences as candidates. Diane is visibly moved by the warmth of Harriet’s introduction. She talks about entering politics in her parents’ memory. Then Harriet makes a shock announcement: ‘There’s a man in the room!’ We all leap to our feet as Ed Miliband walks through. It is, as he says, a rock star’s welcome.

Off next to be a Dragon at the Fabian Society’s Dragons’ Den (typecasting?). Fellow Dragons are David Lammy MP and journalist David Aaronovitch. Policy pitchers include blogger Will Straw (a land tax), new MP, Stella Creasy (Labour Party gap year from meetings) and Sadiq Khan, Ed’s Campaign Manager (review of detention without trial). The debate is lively.

Later that evening I opt for liver preservation, shun the various receptions and leave the Conference Centre early for dinner with my parents who live just outside Manchester.


Just as well I got a nice early night as I’m up at 5.30 to be on the Today Programme: what does Ed Miliband need to do? I identify the economy as the biggest issue for swing voters, especially those in the ‘squeezed middle’ that Ed has set his sights on. Labour’s reputation for economic competence was hard won and, right now, is shot to pieces. The Government’s consistent attack on Labour’s record has worked. Winning back voter confidence must be top of Ed’s ‘to-do list’.

The mood at Conference has changed. Most people have stopped picking over what happened on Saturday and started anticipating what Ed will say tomorrow. The consensus is that he needs to flag up a fresh start and a clean break with the past. Also that he must rap the Unions on the knuckles pretty firmly.

I bump into Ed walking back to the hotel and make a couple of suggestions to him. He thanks me “That’s great, really helpful - I don’t want to find myself Talking to a Brick Wall…”


A flurry of media activity, doing interviews for BBC and ITV news as well as the Daily Politics Show with the Times’ Phil Collins and blogger John McTernan. I say Ed Miliband is a blank piece of paper in the voters’ minds and that, shown photos of both Milibands, recent focus groups got them muddled up. He needs to use the speech to get people looking at Labour again and to start to define himself before others do.

The first Ed era poll gives Labour a lead for the first time in three years. 1% is statistically insignificant but psychologically highly significant. Delegates have more of a a spring in their step.

In twenty five years I have never seen such a long queue to get into the Leader’s speech. Is this a good sign for Ed? Or just chaotic organization? Either way I go for lunch first and thus fail to make it into the main hall. The atmosphere in the overflow hall is a bit flat at first, but Ed wins them over with some home truths about New Labour’s lost ability to challenge conventional truth, some stern admonishments to the Trade Union brotherhood and cheerleading for a higher banking levy (which won the largest cheer).

Best attack line painted Cameron, once a sunny optimist, as a "miserable pessimist".

The call for New Politics is close to my heart and Ed made a powerful case. “I’m in politics and I find it depressing” He pledged to support AV and House of Lords reform.

He also refuses to be "imprisoned by focus groups and polling". This is, of course, the right sentiment. Focus groups and polling should be an aid to decision making, not a substitute for it.

But Ed must not forget that focus groups are a unique and invaluable tool for connecting with voters. They help prevent politicians becoming imprisoned by vested interests like unions and big business.They give politicians a frank heads up on what people really think rather than a point of view expressed in meetings and surgeries, filtered and edited because a politician is in the room. They enable politicians to explore policy options and language nuance from the public’s perspective. Ed knows this better than most. In the early days of working for Gordon Brown he sat through dozens of them with me.

It’s a delicious irony that the "imprisoned by focus groups" line will have been very well received in focus groups.

I resolve to send Ed a copy of Talking to a Brick Wall when I get back to London in case he ever supposes that he might be able to stay in touch with voters without them.

Stay in touch and buy a copy of Deborah's excellent book Talking to A Brick Wall: How New Labour Stopped Talking to the Voter and Why We Need a New Politics now.