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Brighton hosts the return of populist politics

On 27/09/13 by Gareth Barrett

This year’s Labour conference has been described as a move from ‘pamphlet Labour’ to ‘leaflet Labour’. The party has made a shift towards providing tangible policy content in the form of readymade statements - easily printed up and thrust through a letter box. The obvious example is the headline grabbing energy policy, the proposed two year price freeze/cap until 2017, which has seen the most reaction from the pundits. That the potential outcomes of this policy have already been so fiercely debated has already fulfilled part of Labour’s media challenge – that the party had no policies. There is certainly disagreement on the practical nature of the deliveries but narrative based on the party’s lack of actual policies may now be harder to maintain.

The Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls MP, offered some of the first headlines of the conference with plans to increase the banking levy and hints that HS2 may be dropped by a future Labour government. Interestingly, there was no mention of a VAT cut – previously one of the only clear Labour policies – with the money from that cut now seemingly set for elsewhere.

Small business rates proposals were expanded on from earlier proposals with a cut and freeze promised for the first two years. The funding of this measure by reversing a corporation tax cut planned for 2015-16 has created controversy – funding discounts for one type of business by taxing another. Proposals for a change in the minimum wage – to make the rate industry specific – received less coverage but could prove to have as great an impact. The early hints were that a new policy on apprenticeships and immigration would headline the policy announcements proved to be false, despite leading advanced press coverage, though the policy was still proposed.

Pledges for one million new homes over the course of the Parliament – and compulsory land purchasing from developers, who are judged to have chosen not to develop – rounded off the key business focused elements.

The conference also saw a real personalisation of the policies by Ed Miliband. The ‘One Nation Labour’ theme was neat, borrowing an effective framing device from conservatives Disraeli and Macmillan. This conference was led with more ‘Do you agree with Ed Miliband?’ and new postcard’s highlight that ‘Ed Miliband will freeze energy prices’ rather than ‘Labour will.’ This change in tactics can be considered an attempt to improve Miliband’s own personal ratings – which are considerably lower than the Labour Party itself – and attempting to define what he actually stands for. It is also worth noting that the focus shifted from ‘Labour will’ to ‘our government will’, with Ed looking to appear as prime ministerial as possible – a distinct change from last year’s attempts to appear casual and relaxed.

Away from policy developments, the conference again hosted a range of celebrity endorsers for the Labour Party, with Ed Miliband’s introduction being voiced by David Tennant, former ‘Eastender’ and Gavin & Stacey star, Larry Lamb and Eddie Izzard appearing on the front row for the leader’s speech and Jason Isaacs voicing Labour’s film on their new energy policy.

All in all, Populism was certainly a theme that rang true throughout the Brighton experience. Only time will tell how this plays in the polls and, in turn, the all important 2015 general election.


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