Labour’s conference in Manchester certainly didn’t feel like 1996 when the party was last preparing to take power.


Long before Ed Miliband’s blunder in “forgetting” to deliver his remarks on the economy and immigration, it was clear this gathering was not going to be the launch pad to victory. This was because the Scottish Referendum result has cast gloom not optimism across the Labour Party.


It was a victory for “no” which Labour supported but at what a price. The campaign exposed the degree to which previously loyal members in the industrial heart of Scotland (particularly Glasgow) were prepared to express their disillusionment with a party that is no longer radical enough for them. Then there were the images of Ed Miliband being jostled in a shopping mall whilst Gordon Brown showed what effective speech making was all about. Finally the referendum campaign has left Labour floundering for an answer on the English votes for English laws question.


Two last points on the Scotland vote. The high turnout wasn’t just because the question being asked was of the highest importance. Every vote mattered and was campaigned for whether it be in Kirkwall or Kilmarnock. In General Elections we have seen a growing trend for the parties to concentrate on 150 odd marginals. In the “safe” seats there is often little campaigning so it is no wonder the turnout next May could be around 65%. The other one is votes for 16/17 year olds. Ed Miliband was quite right to commit Labour to this extension of the electorate. The Scots youngsters were great. Let’s hope the other parties commit to the same proposal at a time when the issue of the prosperous old and the debt burdened young is rearing its head and needs a political voice.





So Labour delegates arrived in Manchester with a mixture of relief that Scotland was staying and concern about the trap being laid for them by the Prime Minister over English votes for English laws.


They remain ahead in the polls but can they win a majority or will they have to contemplate a deal with what’s left of the Liberal Democrats? I attended a couple of fringe meetings on that subject. There is a lot of antipathy to any deal. A Liverpool Unite delegate said the party would stop supporting Labour if such a thing happened, but there are pragmatists too.

Ed Miliband needed to make a game changing speech but failed. Both he and Ed Balls (for different reasons) are the weakness at the head of the party. However there is potential on the front bench. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham’s idea to bring social and health care together is good. A policy well explained at conference by a man who must have another run for leader. Women like Mary Creagh, Stella Creasey and Rachel Reeves are also future stars.


This was the last Labour conference in Manchester until at least 2019. My sources suggest the city has priced itself out of the party’s reach. Liverpool have stepped in to host the next two northern conferences.


Now it is on to Birmingham and the Conservatives. You can write the lines now “Ed Miliband may have forgotten the economy but we haven’t etc”. However economic optimism is likely to be overshadowed by how the Tories deal with UKIP who could be poised for by election victories not only in Clacton but Heywood and Middleton too.









Ed Balls is becoming a real liability to the Labour Party. His close association with Gordon Brown was one of the reasons why Ed Miliband didn’t appoint him Shadow Chancellor when he became leader three years ago. It’s often forgotten now that Alan Johnson was Ed’s first Shadow Chancellor.


Balls gloomy forecasts about the economy are now seen as over pessimistic. His hasty action, when Children’s Secretary, in sacking Haringey Social Services Director Sharon Shoesmith has led to a massive pay off this week. While that news was coming through, angry Labour MPs told the new Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh that Balls should stop messing about with the HS2 project. This is the issue that is set to be the first big test of the Miliband-Balls relationship.


I met Ed Balls in Manchester last week and tried to find out if the negative vibes he had been sending out about this vital rail project for the North was just about keeping costs down or the start of Labour’s disengagement with the project as a matter of principal. Balls told me it was the former, but then failed to reassure me that even if spending was kept within current figures, Labour’s support was guaranteed.


That’s been the problem in recent weeks. Balls has been sending out signals that its not just the summer cost increases that he’s worried about, but that he might like to use the money on other things if he gets into power.


Then there was the removal of Halewood MP Maria Eagle from her job as Shadow Transport Secretary. Labour sources tell me she was “incandescent” at not being told about Balls Brighton conference remarks about HS2.


The leaders of Leeds and Manchester councils received high praise from Transport Secretary Patrick McLouglin for their support for HS2 at a conference in Manchester this week. When the city’s leader Sir Richard Leese joined the minister on the platform I asked the councillor for his assessment of what Ed Balls was up to.


Leese claimed that Mary Creagh was as keen on HS2 as Maria Eagle, although hours later Creagh was parroting Balls heavily caveated views to that meeting of Labour MPs. However the council leader went on to tell me that it would be “irresponsible” for his party to go into the next election opposed to HS2.


It has even been suggested that Balls has been getting some grief from his wife Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. They have neighbouring constituencies in West Yorkshire. HS2 is planned to run close to the community of Altofts in her Normanton. Pontefract and Castleford constituency and 100 people turned up at a meeting to discuss it with her. I mentioned this to Mr balls who said I’d been staying up too late reading the wrong articles.


Reports suggest Balls may not come off the fence till next spring or even closer to the General Election. This is irresponsible. Doug Oakervee, the outgoing chairman of HS2 Ltd confirmed to me at the Manchester conference that all party consensus was vital to potential investors.


Ed Miliband should tell Mr Balls to issue a statement backing HS2 if the current budget is kept to. If Balls resists he should be sacked. Labour has suffered before when its leader refused to deal with a troublesome Chancellor.


There are a number of potential successors. Two, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna and Shadow Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves were at a Downtown Leeds event recently and were very impressive by all accounts.