John Rentoul: Promises of more of the same won't do

Labour is avoiding the one thing that would give it a chance – changing its leader

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It is a good thing that party conferences don't actually matter. Because if they did, it really would be all over. You would say that Labour in Brighton was just going though the motions if they hadn't abolished that form of internal party democracy in favour of "policy workshops".

Gordon Brown's speech was more of the same. He gave an unexpectedly good speech last year, so this year he tried to do it again, but the effort was too great. It was as if some American political consultant had rewritten the start of the speech, including the cringe-making introduction by Sarah Brown, but gave up after the first page of Gordon's words.

Sarah Brown was, of course, the secret weapon. I think it is known as the General Melchett tactic, after the Stephen Fry character in Blackadder who explains why going over the top and getting killed is what the Hun won't be expecting the Tommie to repeat and is therefore "exactly what we will do". Sarah Brown was a surprise and a triumph last year, so they'll be expecting something different. "I know what", said a tactical genius in No 10. "Let's have Sarah introduce her husband: it's the last thing they'll expect".

And Gordon started with a bit of pace and – now this really was a surprise – an argument. His list of Labour's achievements, although it started bizarrely with the winter fuel allowance, which is a way of not paying a decent state pension, got them to their feet for the first of a few standing ovations. Uh-oh, I thought, shades of Iain Duncan Smith, with his 17 standers in 2003, a few weeks before his MPs ditched him.

But the Labour Party is so moribund that it couldn't choreograph anything quite as complicated. Brown virtually had to tell them to stand up for our armed forces, and there were long expanses of the later reaches of the speech where even this politically-obsessed audience had to be brought out of daydreams about other things.

Brown's argument was a familiar one – Labour ministers have at least the faintest imprint of a folk memory of message discipline – and he put it well. The Conservatives got the judgement about the response to the economic crisis wrong; he made the right call. Yes, it is another Americanism, and it irritates me as much as the candidate's wife telling us that she loves her man, but perhaps that is just progress, and we are all progressives now.

Anyway, the point is that it is an argument. It is an argument that persuades the depleted remnants of a once inspiring political coalition known as New Labour, but actually it is no use at all. It may even be that Brown is right, that it was worth pumping £12bn into the economy this year by cutting VAT just in case the recession turned really bad.

Very clever economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, whose video testimonial was put up before Brown's speech so that the broadcasters could talk over it, say so. But it is a bit rich to extrapolate from the fact that David Cameron and "Boy George", as Peter Mandelson insultingly called George Osborne, opposed the VAT cut that they made the "wrong call" on "the call of the century". They did not oppose recapitalising the banks or printing money, which were more important than the VAT cut. Had they been in government, they would have done pretty much the same as Brown and Alistair Darling did, with the only difference that the state of the public finances would not be quite as terrible as it now is.

But that is an argument for historians and professional economists, not voters. The voters know only that the recession happened on Labour's watch, under a Prime Minister who promised no more boom and bust. They knew it was nonsense, but that doesn't stop them hating themselves – and him – for having gone along with it. And now they want to know about the future, and that was the point at which Brown's speech disintegrated into a kind of Lego assembly of parts.

He promised more of the same. More childcare, incomprehensible fiddling about with constitutional reform, slogans about asbos and post offices. A sudden concern about police response times. A lot of things that sounded expensive with no idea of how to pay for them, from a Government that has spent a lot of money already.

It has been a bad conference for the Labour Party. Not because it knows it is going to lose, but because it is not prepared to do the one obvious thing that would give it a fighting chance of avoiding the worst. It knows that, as the opinion polls confirm, the voters think that "anyone could do a better job" than Gordon Brown as prime minister. It knows that a different leader would not get Labour out of the deep hole it is in after 12 years of being in power and forgetting why, but someone else – almost anyone else – would be able to tell a different story just by virtue of not being Brown.

Someone else would not have been responsible for economic policy for the past 12 years; someone else would speak in a different idiom, would emphasise different priorities, would represent the only chance of inviting voters to take a second look.

It has been a bad conference, above all, for the Alan Johnson campaign. He said, in a pre-conference interview on Saturday: "I haven't got the ambition, and I haven't got the self-confidence, and I haven't got that real aching desire to lead, which really is an essential quality in a leader". Yes, he tacked on at the end a half-hearted form of words to keep his options open – "I'm not willing to rule myself out for all eventualities" – but he has to want it a bit more than that, because this is an emergency, and because Brown will almost certainly have to have it prised out of his iron grip. Perhaps it would have to be David Miliband after all.

But it will take a big external shock to wake up this depleted tribe of sleepwalkers. The "mainstream minority", as Brown mis-spoke in his speech yesterday, that want to do whatever it takes to maximise the Labour vote at the election are reduced to waiting on events, dear boy, events.

John Rentoul is Chief Political Commentator for the Independent on Sunday.

j.rentoul@independent.co.uk

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