Breaking Britain

On 04 April 2013, Mick Philpott was sentenced to life imprisonment for manslaughter. The man caused the death of six of his (many more) children by starting a fire. The Daily Mail’s headline read: ‘Vile Product of Welfare UK’. But it isn’t just the Daily Mail with that view. George Osborne, with the support of the Prime Minister, attributed a role to the welfare state to the rise of Philpott. He said that: ‘I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state […] subsidising lifestyles like that’. Readers of the tabloids, and many politicians besides, strongly believe that the majority of those claiming benefits are either foreigners or fraudsters. This is not surprising, given that citizens are consistently fed myths about those who rely on benefits. The TUC/YouGov Survey from December 2012 is hugely revealing. For instance, respondents believed that 41 percent of the entire welfare budget is spent on unemployment benefits. In a second example, respondents believed that 27 percent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. It therefore comes as no surprise that 59 percent of all respondents of the poll agreed with the following statement:

Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency, whereby many people, and often whole families, get used to living off state benefits; the system needs to be radically changed to get such people to take more responsibility for their lives and their families.

The persistent myths spread by the media have therefore had a huge impact to entrench divisions within society about the nature of welfare (despite the fact that the same respondents also believed (by 54 percent) that the media does not give an accurate account of welfare expenditure or the people that claim social assistance). Here is a pie chart on how the welfare budget is actually spent [1]:

Expenditure of Welfare

What it shows is that less than three percent of the welfare budget goes on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and fraud is estimated to cover roughly 0.8 percent (although ‘fraud’ by definition may not be estimated accurately). What is hugely important to note is how widespread the welfare state supports British families: from young families to pensioners, from the sick and disabled to those on low income. Roughly 64 percent of all families receive some kind of social assistance.

The very idea of ‘welfare’ is now under siege. For many people, the term has connotations of big state, dependency and laziness. It is now even used as an insult, when it was once a source of pride. To take the headline from the Guardian, a ‘war on welfare’ has begun. This ‘war’ is fought amidst growing divisions in British society, in which welfare is linked to the rise of ‘shirkers’ (demonising the unemployed) and connected to the rise of immigration (with consequent rises in xenophobia). These are just two examples of a pervasive trend in an attempt to turn the public against social security in order to legitimise the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

As with the ‘debt versus growth’ debate, the Coalition are winning the argument. The terms of debate have shifted significantly: ‘welfare’ is no longer about supporting those in need; it is now about a ‘culture of dependency’. Setting the agenda in such stark terms means that the Conservatives have been able to pose a particular problem of the welfare state that implies a particular solution: cut welfare and you cut dependency. This narrative has proved to be very powerful – regardless of its faulty analysis. The policy consequences are as radical as the narrative has been powerful. However, the austerity agenda pushed by the Coalition has done far more than changed attitudes to welfare. It has had significant material consequences. A recent report by Oxfam showed that more than 500,000 people are reliant food aid. This is a failure of the social safety net to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. This is a worrying trend, but most disturbingly of all it is almost entirely unopposed. The centre-left, on the whole, has relinquished ownership over the debate on welfare, and the vacuum has allowed the Conservative-led Coalition to fill it. Even Polly Toynbee has given up.

This is despite the fact that the austerity agenda will, as many have already pointed out, disproportionally affect the poor. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies backs this up, epitomised by the following graph [2]:

photo

The inevitable rise in inequality is hugely damaging. It was only a few years ago when the idea of ‘equality’ had a resurgence through the popular book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level. Inequality will have a negative impact on public health, crime and violence, happiness levels, mental health, work ethic and education. [3] Their persuasive arguments were at the top of the political agenda, having the support of David Cameron, Michael Gove, Ed Miliband and Jack Straw – to name a few figures that have publicly quoted the book. Of course, since then, the very idea of ‘equality’ has come under attack. In The Spectator, for example, the book was called ‘junk food for the brain’.

The Conservative Party’s agenda has been hugely effective. It has divided the public and portrayed the Labour Party as squandering public resources on ‘wasteful’ benefit claimants. The story has become one characterised by ‘unfairness’ to hardworking families for the benefit of the lazy. However, this strategy also presents an opportunity for Labour. Using Cameron’s own term of ‘Broken Britain’, which he first coined in 2009, Labour has the opportunity to argue that the Conservatives have further intensified social divisions. Ironically, it is the Conservatives that are ‘breaking Britain’, which Labour must articulate in three important ways. First, it must shift the language from ‘welfare’ to ‘fairness’. This must demonstrate the unfairness of the austerity agenda. Second, it must emphasise the squeeze on living standards and that the Labour Party will protect living standards in a period of low economic growth. Third, Labour must articulate a narrative that unites the public. One Nation Labour must be more than a buzzword; it must show substantive commitment to equality and well-being.

Slowly, the Party leadership has begun to take on this challenge. Last week was hugely important for Labour, and Ed Miliband’s speech was one that delivered. Although nuanced, it hit the right chord for many. Labour cannot win by solely presenting ‘the facts’ of welfare. As Miliband’s speech demonstrated, the Party must be committed to welfare reform with a narrative on social justice (epitomised by the return to the contributory principle), living standards (Miliband once again vowed to push forward with the living wage) and a commitment to equality. This is emblematic of what One Nation must stand for, and it is something that Labour has begun to articulate.

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Notes

[1] Taken from A. Coote and S. Lyall (2013) Mythbusters: “Strivers v. skivers: the workless are worthless”, London: New Economics Foundation. Available here.

[2] R. Joyce and D. Phillips (2013) Tax and Welfare Reforms Planned for 2013-14, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. Available here.

[3] R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

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Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

Pinning Colours to the Mast

It is now the middle of 2013, and we have surpassed the half-way point of this Parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have presided over a turbulent three years with mainly negative evaluations (to put it mildly). We constantly hear of a crisis: within the Conservative Party, the leadership of Cameron has been rocked; within the Coalition, the relationship between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats is increasingly strained; and, within the Treasury, economic forecasts remain as bleak as ever. However, it would be misguided to call these ‘crises’. We are not in a crisis or even going from one crisis to another. We are in a period of social, political and economic malaise. We are faced with a breakdown of stability that has guided British politics for the past 30 years or so under a discredited banner of neo-liberalism. [1] Whilst this is going on, the Labour Party is hammering out its long-term response. In 2010, Labour polled just 29 percent of the popular vote, which understandably provoked a debate about what the Party stands for. Three years down the line, are we seeing a close to this debate? Far from it. Despite Labour’s lead in the polls, the electorate failed to endorse the Party in local elections. It seems that Ed Miliband’s leadership, although cemented, has yet to take a decisive turn towards a coherent governing project with which voters can identify.

Clearly, the Party’s debate is an internal one (at times, one could suggest add the adjective ‘parochial’). However, what is not often ignored is that Labour is made up of a broad coalition of forces that is far more nuanced than most people – Party members included – are willing to admit. The debate is not about Old Labour and New Labour. Both traditions are, without doubt, dominant in many discussions. However, it is possible to characterise many more strands, some of which overlap and some of which diverge radically. Some of these include: Blue Labour [2], Fabian statists [3], ‘Red’ Labour [4], Purple Labour (i.e., Blairites) [5] and Compass, all of which are informed by a proliferation of other ideational networks found in think tanks that include Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the New Economics Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, Policy Network, and many more. [6]

These are competing traditions, and only one specific mixture can emerge out of this coalition of forces in 2015. If this does not happen, then the Labour Party will implode (much like the coalition within the Conservative Party at present). Not only are Labour traditions competing, they are also in opposition to one another, with high-flying accusations. Progress is often accused of a soulless neo-liberal approach to politics and economics. Those opposing austerity are accused of being nothing more than a ‘repository for people’s anger’ [7] or a ‘voice of protest’. The Blue Labour tradition has been attacked as ‘toxic’ and out-of-date. And statism is seen as ‘power hoarding’ that prevents empowerment of the people. Rarely have these attacks been constructive (as some of the examples highlight). It is true that some organisations have begun thinking about strategy, and others have come up with policy ideas. [8] But on the whole, numerous factions within Labour have become increasingly vocal in questioning the calmness of the Policy Review, from New Labour grandees to stroppy trade unionists. What is telling, and should reassure many, is that Ed Miliband is not willing to be pushed around by either New Labour or the trade unions. He is sticking to his own convictions to re-found the principles of the Labour Party in a holistic fashion.

Unfortunately, this is seemingly not enough as factionalism amongst student societies, at public meetings and across the Internet remains steeped full of emotive anger and frustration. Given this, in addition to the malaise facing politicians, it is now more important than ever that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party identify a governing project. [9] This is not about creating a credible economic alternative to the Conservative Party. This is about a vision for politics, economics and society. Without this, the electorate will not vote Labour into government.

One Nation Labour is the banner under which the Party will attempt to unite competing traditions at the general election. Yet few people know what this slogan entails despite the bourgeoning articles, speeches and conferences. Opposition to Labour – from all sides of the political spectrum – is united in calling the Party hollow. This is, perhaps, a curious accusation given that there are so many different centre-left traditions and networks identified above. This has been caused by the fact that the differing coalition forces within the Party and beyond have begun to set out their own appeals for the direction of Labour without fully engaging in dialogue with one another. We have seen the publication of The Purple Book by Progress followed more recently by a new website calling for a Campaign for a Labour Majority. [10] We have an alternative book called The Socialist Way (edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson) outlining a statist, social democratic vision. [11] And finally, we have a trail of articles and speeches by Maurice GlasmanMarc Stears and Jon Cruddas that are united by an appeal towards Blue Labour that found their way into an ebook.

The factions within the Party have begun to cluster around these three reference points: Purple Labour, Red Labour and Blue Labour. All three are beyond the traditional Old and New divide that gripped Labour’s path to victory in 1997. [12] Yet it remains to be seen if any of these interact to form a winning formula. Peter Kellner has recently argued that the Labour Party faces a tough struggle to be viewed as a strong, passionate force, rather than a bunch of ‘nice but dim’ policy-makers. [13] The problem is that all three contemporary strands have offered little more than opposition, squabbling and futile accusations. We need to move beyond critique, and form a governing project. This was recognised as far back as 1945, in which the then Labour Manifesto warned: ‘It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through’. [14] Thus far, Ed Miliband’s leadership has been received with lukewarm interest, which has failed to combine the widespread opposition to the Coalition into a unifying vision. Is this the reason that Labour failed to make further inroads on 02 May? We have pinned our colours – blue, purple, and red – to the mast. The question remains whether that mast is a governing project worthy of the gauntlet One Nation.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] M. Glasman et. al. (eds.) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, ebook available here.

[3] See, for example, Y. Roberts (2012) ‘The Relational Reality’, Fabian Review 124:2, pp.7-8.

[4] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[5] G. Cooke et. al. (2012) The Purple Papers, London: Progress. Available here.

[6] Taking the issue at the broadest conceivable level, there is also a trade union movement that is ferociously against cuts, an Occupy movement that sought to emphasise the ‘99 percent’, and members of hard-left parties – the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and so on (ad infinitum?).

[7] T. Blair (2013) ‘Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger’, New Statesman (12-25 April), p.27.

[8] See, for example, the articles in Fabian Review, 125:1, pp.1-30.

[9] R. Philpot (2013) ‘Remember Wilson’, Progress, pp.10-1.

[10] R. Philpot (ed.) (2011) The Purple Book, London: Progress.

[11] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[12] Although Old Labour and Red Labour are obviously linked, as are New Labour and Purple Labour. But importantly, both movements have moved on and re-articulated their visions given the 2008 economic crises.

[13] P. Kellner (2013) ‘Majority rules’, Progress, pp.14-21.

[14] The Labour Party (1945) Let Us Face the Future: A declaration of Labour policy for the consideration of the nation, London: Labour Party. Available here.

Labour and the EU: From realpolitik to principle?

Since David Cameron called for a referendum on Europe, it would appear that the issue of Europe has subsided somewhat. And yet, there is a distinct danger that the approach taken by the Prime Minister’s opposite number, Ed Miliband, is beginning to create antagonism within Labour. Cameron’s referendum pledge means that the position of the Labour Party towards Europe has been questioned – to such an extent that it is possible that the issue could damage the Party’s electoral chances. This is because Labour’s position is based on realpolitik, not principle. At a time of intense debate about the very nature of the European Union, it is more important than ever that a Labour policy based on principle, as opposed to pragmatism, comes to the fore. First, however, it is worth teasing out why a tension could emerge within the Party.

Let’s rewind time back to the 1960s. The UK was not part of the then European Economic Community, having been snubbed by a veto courtesy of the French. The Labour leadership was not unhappy about this because it saw the EEC as nothing more than a ‘capitalist club’. In 1962, the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, exclaimed that a federal Europe would mean: ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!’. [1] For Labour, what was at stake here was more than just national sovereignty. Rather, the Party argued that the EEC would further the interests of capitalists alone. For those reasons two reasons, Labour fought for a ‘no’ vote on Europe in 1976, and opposed Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU in the early 1980s. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party switched position. The European project turned emphasis away from a common market, which would be fully implemented by the early 1990s, and instead emphasised pan-European welfare, including employment rights and a commitment to a better standard of living. The Labour Party looked across the Channel and saw that in mainland Europe broadly left-of-centre policies flourished. At this point, Labour opted to support the EU because it has economic and social benefits for the UK. [2]

Back to 2013, and the orthodox Labour support for Europe has come under significant pressure. The pledge by David Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU has caused an EU-induced schizophrenia: first, Ed Miliband rules out a referendum on Europe; second, Ed Balls makes the opposite claim. This confusion suggests that Labour needs to rebuild its strategy on Europe. Most importantly, and probably uncomfortable for some, Labour must call for a referendum on Europe. Once it has done this, Labour will be able to shape the agenda on the future of Europe by asking two questions:

1. What should Europe stand for? There are three principles:

  • Democracy. European democracy should rest with the European Parliament, on the one hand, and a European President, on the other hand. This would ensure national representation through two input-based mechanisms. The EU must do more than preach democracy, it must begin to practise it too.
  • Economic and Social Prosperity. One of the overriding positive impacts of the EU is that it will help to stimulate national economies. This is the major output-based mechanism that needs attention. The EU must be able to do less on a European-wide level, and support national economies instead. For this reason, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander were right to call for a real-terms cut in the EU budget. The EU should become an association of national economies that supports employment rights and better living standards.
  • Subsidiarity. Power must be devolved to the most local institution possible. This goes to the heart of democratic power and also remains a prerequisite for economic prosperity. This is because it will give European peoples a sense of ownership. All of this means that the EU become multi-level and multi-sectoral – a dynamic system that sees clusters of shared policy-making.

2. How can these principles be implemented? Here are some specific policies:

  • Democratic powers must be based on a directly elected president for the whole of the EU; but the European Parliament should become the sole initiator of European legislation (exceptions would be inter-governmental treaties to be scrutinised by national parliaments).
  • The overall size of the EU needs to be slimmed down through a smaller Commission; the removal of the European Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP respectively); no more moving back-and-forth from Strasbourg and Brussels; and a salary freeze for MEPs and bureaucrats. This will allow for a real-terms budget cut.
  • Resources should support national economies and protect employment rights – this could include a guarantee of apprenticeships, placement schemes and more. This is hugely important to develop cultural and economic ties throughout Europe.
  • To safeguard subsidiarity, we need a more powerful Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), which would meet more often to hold EU decision-makers to account. The UK Parliament should establish a Parliamentary Committee on Europe that brings together MPs, peers and UK MEPs to debate EU issues of major importance. It would be accountable to the UK Parliament, but also send representation to the EU.

This is what Labour must stand for. It must ensure that the principles given above remain at the heart of the European project in order to pave the way for a new European settlement that calls for a slim, dynamic association of national economies and not for a corpulent, bureaucratic union.

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Notes

[1] M. Charlton (1983) The Price of Victory, London: BBC, p.274.

[2] I’ve drawn this analysis from a BBC podcast by Analysis, called ‘Labour, the left and Europe’ (29 October 2012).

At Conference

Monday, 01 October at Manchester Piccadilly. It was raining. I had a searing headache. Worst of all, I have had less than three hours sleep (again). On the whole, I have been feeling pretty deflated about my life for weeks now (cue the violin). I feel this preamble is necessary, even if personal, only because it set the scene for Labour’s Conference. I wondered around Manchester somewhat aimlessly until I finally managed to find Manchester Central, which was, as it happened, a huge conference centre. At that point, my despondency was matched by nervousness – I had never been to Conference, and had no idea what to expect. Then I realised that I probably ought to give some air of confidence and purpose so that I would earn some kind of respect (and possibly dignity). Equipped with my faux bonheur, I went through security.

Seconds later I bumped into Jon Cruddas and walked past Dennis Skinner. PAs were rushing past me with their iPads. It was strange how quickly I had passed into some kind of red bubble of politicos. I walked as briskly as I could, pretending I knew exactly what I was doing. I entered a large hall full of stalls. Luckily, Peter Hain was just beside me, so all the attention was on him and I was able to pass by rather quietly and avoiding a barrage of leaflets. At this point, my nerves had decided to leave the pit of my stomach and were replaced by butterflies of excitement. I continued through the hall to take a look around, but before I took anything in, I realised I was late for the scheduled speech of Ed Balls.

Once through the double doors to the Main Hall, I was in total darkness and heard a slow, sad and echoing voice. Very concerned, I turned to my left and saw a man dressed in a blue suit (which only added to the surrealism). He directed me towards a staircase that I hadn’t seen from the corner of my eye. I went up and took my seat, listening to the echoing voice of a councillor and waiting for the Shadow Chancellor. And waited. 40 minutes late, Chuka Umuna took to the stage in a short, low key speech, before handing over to Ed Balls. The Shadow Chancellor’s speech was good, I thought. Balls isn’t the most charismatic man in the world, but his speech was sensible. I was more than happy with his assessment of what was needed for the British economy: a growth strategy through real infrastructure investment. The speech was shorter than I expected, but then again, I had no concrete idea of what to expect.

After his speech, I deftly flicked through my fringe guide and walked as fast as I could to one of the large meeting rooms next to the Exhibition Area. There was nothing faux about my sense of purpose this time: I had every intention of securing a free lunch at a fringe event. As luck would have it, I managed to get into a high profile one featuring Danny Finkelstein, Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson. Plus a free buffet lunch and coffee. The talk was really interesting, where Campbell came across very honestly about why Labour lost the general election in 2010. With anti-depressants finally in my veins thanks to the coffee, I was much more intrigued by Conference and scurried all around to get into discussions with people. I ended up in a long conversation from someone from the Howard League and their work to reform penal law. I also saw Alastair Campbell on a rowing machine. That was surreal, if slightly amusing. Sadly I couldn’t speak to him – others were eagerly haggling for his attention while he tried to catch his breath. After an hour and half of swooping around, the effect of the coffee wore off, which meant that my temporary good mood also decided to bow out. Bored, I went back into the Main Hall. Failing to concentrate, my mind played all sorts of gymnastics in my head. Changing tactic, I got out my fringe guide to coax out my earlier excitement at some of the events I wanted to go to: debates, panels, talks, discussions, speeches… All top stuff, although the only one on available on Monday at 4.30pm was an event on social media effectiveness full of older members of the Party to get some tips. Sigh. Finally it turned 6pm and I dashed off to meet my friend. We went for a meal at reliable Whetherspoons and ended the night by going to a left-wing bloggers’ karaoke party. A geeky, strange affair – geeky because of the bloggers, strange because at one point I heard Owen Jones singing to his heart’s content. It was 2.30am when we finally got home.

The following morning at 8am, I sat in the Hilton Hotel listening to the British Humanist Association. My free croissant and coffee were accompanied by a throbbing headache. At one point I wasn’t sure whether or not it had been worth getting up at 6.45am. My friend obviously didn’t think so, who decided to rock up at 11am, by which point I had been to two fringe events and had (another) coffee with a friend (who is, bizarrely, a veryactive Tory – she just loves conferences and arguments, I concluded).

At 2.30pm, it was time for the Leader’s Speech. It was fantastic. It was well-presented, well-thought-out and impeccably well-timed. It really delivered on everything that it needed to. Most importantly, a good speech is what I needed to reinvigorate my waning passion for politics that gripped me recently. My friend, and all the other people around me, were buzzing. We have a Leader of the Opposition who has the very real opportunity to become prime minister. Of course we were all in the Conference bubble, so it could all be twaddle. But I went to a fringe event afterwards where Tim Montgomerie, the ConservativeHome blogger, praised Ed Miliband. He thought the Tories were in real trouble. All other panellists – journalists, academics and shadow ministers – were genuinely impressed. Most of Tuesday evening was spent at fringe meetings going over One Nation Labour. I met my friend later too, and ended up staying out until 3.30am in discussions with various bloggers. At one point Hugh Grant walked past me to go to the toilet. CLAIM TO FAME.

On Wednesday, the fringes carried on. I ended up meeting Will Straw and a couple of other figures. Then I saw a friend to discuss a student policy network. My enthusiasm for all things politics was slowly making a comeback. The faux bonheur was almost entirely replaced by genuine (even if temporary) good spirits. We had lunch together and then I went to a fringe event to hear about the consequences of One Nation Labour for the British economy – with Polly Toynbee (who went on tribalist rants against the Tories, leaving me unimpressed) and Maurice Glasman (excellent speaker, complementing One Nation Labour with ‘One Nation Economics’ very well). After that event finished, I rushed back to the Exhibition Area to get into the next fringe meeting about environmental sustainability and economic growth. Chuka Umuna was there. As was free wine. I got chatting to a student from York University, who seemed very nice (but wouldn’t shut up when the panellists were talking, so our friendship was short-lived). 7.30pm and slightly tipsy, I stumbled out the conference centre and met my friend for dinner.

Last night of Conference meant that there would be a massive night out, organised by Labour Students. The most controversial moment came when Labour Students announced the raffle prize: a signed copy of A Journey, by Tony Blair. Half the room booed ferociously, the other cheered with equal vigour. It was interesting, if only because everyone had cheered in unison earlier in the night when Things Can Only Get Better blasted through the speakers.

All in all, I enjoyed Conference. The first day not so much. The atmosphere in general seemed a little bit anxious, and definitely not enthusiastic (regardless of my personal attitude). The Leader’s Speech smashed it though. Tuesday evening and all of Wednesday was full of vibrant buzz and ideas. Thursday morning I arrived in Sheffield with a renewed sense of optimism that Labour will get things going for the whole country.

mg