Party conference speeches are often characterised as being directed at either the assembled delegates or the wider electorate; Ed Miliband’s One Nation speech falls into the latter category – at one stage he made a direct appeal to those that had voted for David Cameron and the Conservatives in 2010.
This was a speech as much about Ed Miliband the person as it was Labour the political party; he discussed his own personal history and beliefs, appealing to an electorate that is as much swayed by personality as policies.
However, that is not to suggest there was a dearth of policy detail elsewhere at the conference.
Senior Labour figures provided both ideas on their approach to policy making as well as actual, deliverable initiatives themselves. Furthermore, these ideas were theoretically and thematically consistent, compatible with the theory of predistribution and the narrative of fairness and responsible capitalism. When shadow ministers spoke of a party united rather than one descending into internal conflict as many predicted, there was evidently substance to the claim.
Several announcements on business policy fit within the responsible capitalism narrative without resorting to the divisive language of predators and producers. Tackling vested interests and forces beyond the control of ordinary people, such as rail fares, the banks and energy prices, suggested Labour would seek to regulate against malfunctioning markets or those interests perceived to be taking advantage of their dominant position.
Supporting those businesses offering apprenticeships and training is as much about re-skilling the workforce as encouraging longer-term business investment, which was further emphasised by calling for an end to quarterly reporting for PLCs. Taken together these policies encourage businesses to take a longer-term perspective and invest in their employees.
This is particularly relevant to the notion of responsible capitalism; improving wages for the low paid or reducing living costs may require short-term reductions in business profits. The trade off is that businesses can plan and invest for the future, developing riskier but higher value goods and services that will deliver greater profits in the long term.
Andy Burnham’s big idea, for whole person care, would see the NHS become responsible for the provision of social care and local authorities responsible for commissioning. Combining the budget for social care and treatment would incentivise the NHS to prevent individuals requiring treatment – which is more costly than social care – in the first place. Integration has the potential to improve the quality of provision and health outcomes, while delivering cost savings.
This emphasis on delivering improved outcomes without spending runs through every policy area. In transport, shadow minister Maria Eagle discussed how transport policy could help promote fairness and tackle youth unemployment. Young people looking for work or travelling to college could be given free transport, much like free bus passes for pensioners. This would eliminate one of the large costs young people face when trying to find, and get to, work or education.
Instead of paying bus or train companies to provide this service it would be embedded in the tendering process or brought about by Quality Bus Contracts. It would be fair, support training, in turn boost the economy and potentially come at no cost to the government.
This is part of a wider conversation on how local authorities, Whitehall and central government can leverage its procurement power. Whether it is encouraging fair wages, sustainability or as a means of embedding socially responsible practice, procurement contracts have the potential to profoundly influence the private sector. A number of councils announced they would adopt the Living Wage, but there was also a suggestion local authorities could require their contractors to pay it to their employees too.
Individually these policies may not represent radical reform, particularly as some are more a representation of the principles on which policy will be constructed rather than firm commitments. It is still relatively early in the electoral cycle and the party’s policy review is still underway, so the lack of detail is understandable. But taken together, these policies reveal not only the overall direction of the party, but that policy is joined up and moving in the same direction.
It is far too early to make predictions on the contents of the next manifesto or potential electoral performance; however, what can be discerned is Labour is beginning to develop a distinct package – built around clear and communicable principles – to present to the electorate in 2015.