Labour Party 'can still appeal to the workers and Middle England'

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The man charged with writing Labour's next general election manifesto warned the party last night that it faced a challenge to hold on to the unprecedented coalition of support that swept Tony Blair to power in 1997.

Ed Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister, told a packed fringe meeting organised by The Independent that there was no conflict in meeting the demands of Middle England and those of Labour's heartland voters.

Signalling that Labour would not lurch to the left, Mr Miliband insisted that the party would continue to span the political divide at the next election. But with speculation about a possible October date for a general election, Mr Miliband said the party needed to show it had a different vision of society from its opponents if it was to achieve an historic fourth term in power.

Mr Miliband refused to be drawn on a possible general election date. He said: "It's a hard decision ... but it's better to be eight points ahead than eight points behind – that gives us reason to be optimistic whatever Gordon decides."

He added: "We need to keep the New Labour coalition together, that is very important. We have a large number of marginal seats we need to win to stay in government. We should reject the idea that there is somehow an automatic and irreconcilable conflict between the heartlands and Middle England ... we need to show we can bridge the gap between different types of constituency."

He told the meeting – How Can Labour Win a Fourth Term in Power? – that the party's manifesto needed to "speak to the concerns of people's lives which are often distant from Westminster politics."

He said Labour would have to project an "optimism" that everyone can fulfil their potential if they are given the chance and contrast it with the Tories, who had an "increasingly pessimistic vision of Britain" and was not in touch with the concerns and hopes of the electorate.

Jon Cruddas, who won plaudits for his vigorous deputy leadership campaign, urged the party to be bold on issues such as the abuse of migrant labour, housing, insecurity in the workplace and the increasing use of the private sector in private services.

The Dagenham MP warned that Labour had lost support since 1997 among four key groups of workers – public sector workers, ethnic minority voters, middle-class opponents of the Iraq war and male manual workers.

Both Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader, and Mr Cruddas appealed for more time for the new Government to present its credentials to the electorate, while Patricia Hewitt, the former health secretary, said she had always supported fixed-term parliaments.

Lord Kinnock said of an autumn poll: "If we do it, the question will be 'Why?' "

He also joked that Labour's campaign against the Tories should "grind the bastards into dust". He said the party needed to demonstrate clear distance from the Tories by linking the Government's achievements to Labour values.

Conference Diary

* Will he, won't he?

There was only one subject on the lips of delegates, MPs and journalists: will there be a snap election? Everyone is getting jittery as their post-conference holiday plans seem ever more under threat. Senior Labour figures are divided down the middle over the wisdom of an early poll. One said: "Our pollsters say we'd be mad not to go", but minutes later another said: "It's all a wind-up to get the Tories going."

* Flying visit

John Prescott, conference stalwart for nearly half a century, was in Bournemouth for just one day. A friend of the workaholic former Labour deputy leader said: "After working 16 hours a day for all those years, he deserves to take it easier."

* Tory joy

Double takes all round at the posh, pinstriped figure of the Tory defector Quentin Davies, who won a standing ovation from the Labour faithful. He tore into David Cameron and said other Tories should follow his lead. He praised Gordon Brown's "extraordinary judgement". One leftwinger said: "I don't feel as if I belong here any more. I'm going to leave early, I can't stand it."

* Comedy cutaways

The BBC excelled itself with its traditional speech reaction shots. Sarah Brown looked stony-faced during her husband's passage about the difficulties of getting the kids up in the morning, while Peter Mandelson raised an eyebrow while the Prime Minister spoke of equality for people of different genders, race and sexuality.

* Foes no more

Derek Draper, Peter Mandelson's former voice on Earth, finally made up with his erstwhile nemesis Charlie Whelan, who used to spin so aggressively for Gordon Brown. The pair literally kissed and made up on live BBC TV, prompting the presenter to complain: "I feel sick."

* Good Day

Gordon Brown, who won a four-minute standing ovation for his rousing conference speech. Mind you in the old days, Tony Blair could usually rely on six.

* Bad Day

The Opposition, who failed to get a single mention in Mr Brown's speech.

* Today's agenda

11am: Speech by Health Secretary Alan Johnson

11.50am: Question and answer session with Health ministers

12.30pm: Speech by Foreign Secretary David Miliband

2.15pm: Foreign affairs debate. Speeches by Defence Secretary Des Browne and International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander

4pm: Pensions debate with Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton

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