To the lovely setting of Knowsley Park near Liverpool last night, and a speech to pensions experts. No, wait, wait, the specific brief was ‘anything but pensions’ so don’t go away.
Of course pensions is a fascinating subject but tough for an after dinner speech, especially when your main experience of the issue is having your own one stolen by Robert Maxwell.
So I stuck to a diet of hopefully amusing anecdotes, some about Cap’n Bob indeed, followed by an assessment of where we are politically post the Conference leaders’ speeches.
For Nick Clegg, jury out. For Ed Miliband, jury out. For David Cameron, jury out. I took a bit longer to say it but I suppose that was the conclusion.
If Clegg makes the coalition work and the economy improves, he is well placed. If the cuts tear his party apart, and that tears the coalition apart, he is toast, and his party will be the soggy bits. If the coalition falls apart for Cameron at the wrong time, he is in trouble. If it falls apart at the right time, and the economy is improving, he could be there for a while.
What I found interesting is how little warmth there was towards either of them. There were a few Labour supporters at the dinner, because some advertised themselves to me as such when they bought up books to sign. But they were, I suspect in the minority. Yet there was little fondness for Cameron, a fair bit of suspicion, and not much respect.
I said I felt he had failed to win a majority because people lacked a sense of who he is and what he wants to do. He has still not really answered that. It was an odd speech. Terrible jokes don’t help. But most of it was a rehash of stuff he said during the election, and until the Big Society has a clear message and policy agenda where one is required, it will continue to be the case that people remain unsure about his politics, character and judgement.
And whenever people feel the cuts stray from necessary to ideological – he needs to watch Osborne like a hawk, and I know a thing or two about PMs and chancellors – the little good will there seems to be will evaporate quickly.
Not for the first time the media, still largely supine and tummy-tickling, are behind the public curve on this.
Of course if the Tories do see the economy improve, and can win the argument that their cuts were in large part responsible then whatever pain and aggro en route, they will be well placed.
But I was also struck last night by how receptive people seemed to be to the message that the attacks on Labour as being responsible for the so-called mess they call a great country called Britain are over the top. They sense perhaps that Cameron and Osborne remain more focussed on a political rather than an economic strategy.
Phil Stephens in today’s FT makes a similar point. He felt the PM was at his strongest when making a call to arms to help deal with the deficit in the national interest, at his weakest in the constant attacks on Labour and GB … ‘but the story of 13 dismal years under Labour jars with the experience of most voters,’ he said, rightly.
Which brings me to Labour’s new leader. I felt during the last general election, until the very end, that insufficient attention was paid to promoting Labour’s record. And I felt that during the leadership election too much was said that allowed the Tories to take it and use it to help paint their deliberately negativising picture of the last government, essential to their core strategy.
If Cameron wins the argument that the economic difficulties were all Labour’s fault, and that the country did not improve hugely since ’97, he will be helped enormously to do some pretty dreadful things.
So new generation or not, the past being a different country or not, the argument over how we got to where we are, and what it means for the future, has to be engaged in better than has happened so far. A one-sided fight has to become two-sided fight quickly.
I backed David Miliband, and of course would not have done so had I not thought he was the man the Party should have elected. But it didn’t and as a Labour loyalist I will support Ed. I hope the point about the argument over the past is taken in the spirit in which it is intended – something we have to win to stop the Tories doing even more damage, and succeeding in shifting the blame unfairly to GB and Co when they do so.