David Blackburn

Labour tries to make its mark

Labour tries to make its mark
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Global events may soon relegate Labour conference to the News in Brief sections of newspapers, especially as it appears that G20 finance ministers are preparing for Greece to default and for contagion to spread to other parts of the Eurozone. So, the Labour leader has wasted no time as Labour conference opens.

In interviews with the Observer and the Sunday Mirror, he revives his tactic of presenting himself as an insurgent, the man to "rip up the rulebook”. He makes a pledge or two: the headline grabbing idea is a cap tuition fees at £6,000 per year, paid for by reversing a planned corporation tax cut on the hated banks. This blatant pitch for disaffected votes, coming from a leader who opposed fee increases outright last year, doesn’t suggest that the leadership has moved beyond eye-catching gimmicks to talk credibly about economic policy.

That sense is compounded by Ed Balls. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Balls says, “I said a year ago, 'there's a global hurricane brewing'. Our recovery was fragile and if you try to go too far too fast, you put jobs in recovery at risk. And it was very, very risky. David Cameron and George Osborne said ‘no’, they knew better...It's hurting but it's not working...And you know, at a certain point, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and David Cameron will have to face up to the need for action and a change of course."

Once again
, Balls fails to present an alternative. Rather, he woos the social democratic wing of the Liberal Democrats by saying that it’s “quite conceivable that we’ll have a coalition with the Liberal Democrats”. He then adds that Nick Clegg would be, echoing Simon Hughes’ excruciating Glee Club shanty last week, hung out to dry.

Balls’ interview indicates that this conference is about positioning rather than policy. Miliband and Balls are trying to move the centre ground to the left by courting the squeezed middle with a range of tax and spend goodies: the proposed tuition fee cap is an example of that strategy in action. Meanwhile, shadow ministers will apologise for some of New Labour’s foibles and shortcomings, part of the continuous attempt to draw a line under the era of Blair and Brown. Already, Jim Murphy has conceded that Labour lost control of the defence budget and today he vows (£) that the party will never descend into soap opera again. Liam Byrne, John Denham and Douglas Alexander are all expected to offer mea culpas. By the end of this conference, we should know where Labour stands, though not for what it stands.