Ed's first year as leader: Is this the end of the beginning – or the beginning of the end?

Saying sorry didn't play well with party activists

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Indy Politics

By the middle of last week, after a procession of Labour figures had expressed everything from mild embarrassment to profound regret over the sins of the last government, even Ed Miliband's closest colleagues were becoming agitated. "We've just got to stop apologising," one Labour grandee lamented on Wednesday morning.

Long before the party's week in Liverpool, the leadership had decided that this was the time to cleanse its collective soul after many false starts. "We had apologised before," explained Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary. "But when you're in opposition, people aren't paying attention."

Mr Miliband got his chance to be heard last week, and still many supporters wonder whether it would have been better if he had kept his head down. Saying "sorry" was a central part of the strategy. Senior Labour figures, close to the leader and far beyond him, made it clear that the group remorse was not an impulsive reaction to disapproval, but the first stage of a recovery. Just as Theresa May's scolding of her own as "the nasty party" nine years ago is seen as the platform for the Tories' slow comeback, presenting Labour as the "sorry" party served a strategic purpose.

"We needed to get this out of our way and move on," said one shadow-ministerial greybeard. "We deal with the past, then start defining what we stand for and then put together a programme of specific policies in time for the next election."

Colleagues, beginning with Ed Balls, drove home the message from the conference podium. The Shadow Chancellor conceded that Labour was "nowhere near tough enough" on banking regulation ("and the world has paid a very heavy price for that"), although he denied that the financial crisis was caused by "government spending profligacy".

This confessional mode culminated in the leader offering a degree of contrition for Labour's opposition to several Thatcherite initiatives in the 1980s – when most of the Shadow Cabinet were still in their teens.

The painful approach was not entirely successful within the party, let alone the rest of the country. For a start, some within Mr Miliband's own team felt it had come too late ("If David Miliband had won the leadership election, he would have tackled our economic credibility on day one," one unreconstructed shadow minister sighed).

And, for others, the self-flagellation went on too long. John McTernan, a former Blair aide, complained bitterly about Labour telling the public that in government they got it wrong over the economy. "There's a fatal flaw at the heart of this argument," he said. "Its aim is to restore economic credibility, but the route to do this apparently involves shredding Labour's economic record."

If the leader's plan works, Liverpool 2011 may be the last time Labour apologises for anything. After a year in the job, Mr Miliband feels the foundation work has been done; it has been a traumatic 12 months but, finally, he appears to have reached the end of his beginning.

Where he goes from here is anyone's guess. There was an appetite for swifter movement and more announcements among Labour members last week, but their problem is that, for the moment at least, no one would pay any heed to whatever was said. Shadow ministers have already accepted their anonymity; while obscurity is a bitter fate for a party that has become used to government, it has some advantages, notably the space to experiment with policies – and to get some things wrong.

The Miliband camp argues, justifiably, that there is no crisis in the leadership. While his speech failed to inspire, he has retained a slender lead over the Conservatives and he has more than three years to complete his recovery plan. One veteran accepts the party is more settled under him than under Gordon Brown, when the strategy was to "keep running around in the woods and hope something turns up".

The leader's address was the start of a campaign to chase target voters on the mythical centre ground, which Labour strategists maintain has moved to the right since Tony Blair's breakthrough victory in 1997. The assault on "predatory" business practices was a direct response to public revulsion at the behaviour of Southern Cross earlier this year; the work of the shadow business secretary, John Denham, in this area was seized on by a leadership seeking a populist target to chime with the public mood.

But Mr Miliband's strident "leftist" rhetoric, which roused instinctive protests from the business community, managed to overshadow the more populist, traditional positions that he took in priority areas, including immigration and welfare.

The grumbling about his performance remains, even among his closest colleagues. Some MPs were scathing, with one complaining that: "Tony Blair, and even Gordon Brown, used to paint pictures in their speeches – they used to give the audience something to follow, to latch on to."

One shadow cabinet member said: "Ed said 'I'm not Tony Blair' and then stopped, as if it suddenly hit him that he wasn't Tony Blair. It was a delivery glitch. He should have continued to say 'I'm not Gordon Brown – I'm my own man', but he didn't."

The criticism is not confined to the leader. Others acknowledge that the entire front bench must raise its game – and profile. Nevertheless, by the end of the week, Miliband aides were talking about his 20-year strategy to shift the UK closer to what he sees as a "continental democracy". It might be a testament to his vision and ambition, or a tacit recognition that he will not have transformed the party enough to win the next general election; in reality, his room for manoeuvre is already being restricted.

Last year Mr Miliband saw off the brightest rivals in his generation in one fell swoop, but the party is already talking of another leadership campaign. Yvette Cooper, given the blessing of her husband, Ed Balls, to stand next time, remains a favourite, evidenced by a standing ovation for a speech restating Labour's claim to be "the party of law and order".

Yet, in the quietness of opposition and obscurity, the next generation is already finding its feet. Senior Labour figures are now developing what one source described as "2020 vision" – predicting that Mr Miliband will lose in 2015, stand down and a member of the 2010 intake will succeed him to win the general election in 2020. Talk on the margins of the conference was focused on Rachel Reeves, the former economist now seen as one of the frontrunners as a future leader. Other members of the new intake already touted as successors include John Woodcock, Chuka Umunna, Michael Dugher and Stella Creasy, while one shadow minister confidently declared that "Dan Jarvis will be the next Labour leader". The former Para, a new MP, has been looking after his two children since his wife died last year.

In a reshuffle in the next week, the leader will move a number of greybeards who have helped him through a difficult first year. There will be no shortage of younger candidates – and future rivals – to take their place.

In quotes...

I'm not Tony Blair. I'm not Gordon Brown either. I'm my own man. And I'm going to do things my own way.

Ed Miliband, Labour leader

People say Labour needs more policy. And we certainly need to rethink, come up with new ideas, understand the future, learn from the past. But I think [Ed] is also right to recognise that more or new policy is not the place to start.

David Miliband, Defeated leadership candidate

I hope we will have David, er, Ed, Ed Miliband elected as prime minister at the next election.

Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader

Of course we made some mistakes. People are obviously angry about what happened under our watch, and they want us toacknowledge that. But I'm not going to say we spent too much money on the NHS.

Ed Balls, shadow Chancellor

We didn't get everything right. We didn't need 90-day detention; we didn't need 42-daydetention. They were neverjustified by the evidence.

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary

Your years of association as a party with the Murdoch press – I'm not really sure that suited you. I'm not sure that was your best look.

Hugh Grant, actor, gently chiding Labour over its past associations

I can see someone from News International fifth row back. So if any riots break out and you want to take out your anger, feel free.

Len McCluskey, leader of Unite at a fringe meeting

The shadow cabinet: Miliband's front-bench reshuffle: the likely movers

In...

Rachel Reeves Former Bank of England economist has irresistible shadow cabinet credentials. Supported Ed Miliband for leadership and swiftly promoted to shadow minister. The outstanding future leader from the 2010 intake, was the talk of Liverpool.

Stella Creasy A researcher, feminist, community activist and spin-doctor for the Scouts. She was already a councillor – and, briefly, a 25-year-old mayor – before she arrived in Parliament in 2010. Has impressed as an aide to Andy Burnham.

Chuka Umunna Hates being labelled as "Britain's Obama", and insists he has no designs on the leadership, but his eloquence and easy charm make him a prime contender. Worked on Miliband's leadership campaign and promoted twice since last year.

Out...

Hilary Benn Polled well for the shadow cabinet last year. Becoming shadow leader of the House suggested either he didn't want a high-profile role, or that the leader didn't require his experience.

John Healey Performed creditably in attacking the coalition's proposed health reforms, but has been overshadowed since Liberal Democrat backbenchers joined theargument. His nous would be useful elsewhere in the Shadow Cabinet.

Staying...

Yvette Cooper Already immovable after topping shadow cabinet elections, now strengthened by diligent work as shadow Home Secretary. Can effectively choose her own job and, with her husband's blessing, may choose Mr Miliband's.

John Denham Archetypal "greybeard" who worked on Miliband's campaign. He might have stood back after helping establish the new regime, but role as adviser – and architect of the "predatory business" strand in the leader's speech – make him indispensable.

Jim Murphy Ran David Miliband's leadership campaign, but has become a central member of the new regime. Astute and resolute as shadow Defence Secretary and gave impressive conference speech.

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