Steve Richards: There are signs of a Labour fightback

I sense more resolve among senior figures to keep the show on the road
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The Independent Online

On one level the Labour conference that ended in Brighton yesterday was a curiously dated affair in which senior party figures and their media tormentors danced to old tunes, reliving their favourite moments from the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet beneath the surface there were signs of a forward-looking maturity, a hint here and there that while Labour fears defeat there is appetite for a pre-election battle and no hunger for the near fatal, bruising internal conflict that erupted the last time it was voted out of power.

Gordon Brown's speech epitomised the divide, managing to be outdated and forward-looking at the same time. As I listened to him on Tuesday afternoon, announcing policy after policy in a densely argued and yet repetitive speech, I was reminded of his budgets when he was Chancellor. It is quite something to turn the high theatre of a conference speech into the equivalent of listening to one of his budgets. Brown has not grasped that the leader's speech is an opportunity to mount an argument, engage in a conversation with the electorate which for once is paying a little attention. It is not an event that needs to be studded with detailed policies.

The slogans were familiar too. "For the many and not the few" first made its appearance in the mid-1990s. It was back again this week, the equivalent of Harold Wilson talking about the "white hot heat of the technological revolution" at the end of his leadership as he had famously done at the beginning. Wilson did no such thing, but he too discovered no new tunes towards the end of his leadership. Brown's speech proves a wider point. Successful political leaders have only one big narrative in them and turn to it repeatedly even if the story has moved on.

But the strategic thinking implicit in the speech, its ideological underpinning in relation to "markets without morals", and some of the policies, were much more daring than anything announced by New Labour when the world was proclaiming its boldness. Electoral reform and some of the proposals relating to public services and social care could transform politics if they were implemented.

There is though the small matter of an election intervening before such policies get close to implementation. The Sun newspaper made clear within hours of Brown's speech that when the election came it was backing the Conservatives. I was with a senior cabinet minister when he got the text with the news on Tuesday evening. "The bastards," he declared.

But the imperious swagger of The Sun's senior figures as they sought to alert the Prime Minister of their move and then toured the studios to declare on "behalf of our readers" also had a dated air. They have played the same trick too many times to generate much excitement, their equivalent of Brown returning to his favourite old slogans. It is also worth re-reading The Sun's endorsement of Labour at the last election. The editorial stated it was only backing the party because of Tony Blair's foreign policies and in particular Iraq. It had ceased to be a Labour supporter in relation to domestic policies long before Blair had resigned.

But Labour still needs to tread carefully. The response of some senior figures was even more dated as they baited The Sun in their speeches to angry, rapturous applause, as they used to do in the 1980s. In modern Britain, if there is a battle between elected politicians and a non-elected media empire, there will be only one winner. It will not be the elected politicians. There is nothing in it for Labour in going to war with The Sun.

In spite of The Sun's efforts, Labour is better placed to face next year's election than it was at the start of the week, not that this is saying a great deal. In spite of the gory headlines over the weekend there were no mutinies and no great posturing from aspiring leaders. Instead there were signs that some of the party's senior figures were working with a degree of determined maturity to keep the party focused.

Jon Cruddas, from the left of the party, and James Purnell, from the Blairite wing, have become something of a double act, not as part of a leadership campaign, but in an attempt to find common ground in order to avoid a fatal outbreak of post-election civil war.

Their co-operation is part of a wider move in which senior figures seek to ensure that Labour has a future. If there is a hung parliament, Brown's pledge to hold a referendum on electoral reform becomes highly significant. Would the Liberal Democrats choose to support the Conservatives in such circumstances and lose the chance to change the voting system?

I also sense more resolve now from senior figures to keep the show on the road if Labour is removed from power which is still the probable outcome. Peter Mandelson attracted headlines for his theatrical performance this week, but his more important role is as a unifying force before the election and afterwards, in the event of a heavy defeat.

On the basis of yesterday's closing session others seem more equipped to play significant roles too. David Miliband's speech yesterday was a marked improvement on the one last year partly because he managed to politicise foreign affairs, not an easy task. The section on Europe exposed the Tories' current daft position more effectively than he has done before. When he spoke of their link with the far-right parties in Brussels he declared "It makes me sick", a rare moment of Miliband passion. There were too many pauses in the still mannered delivery but the passion humanised his performance. Miliband's was not the only spirited ministerial performance that suggested Labour will not die in the event of a heavy defeat at the hands of David Cameron.

In his Spectator interview this week Cameron declares "proper radicalism is thinking through how you are going to get from A to B to C to D. I think that's what we're doing."

Yes, but what is "D"? Indeed what are "B" and "C"? As the least scrutinised opposition in modern history gathers for its conference in Manchester, let us hope we find out.