Sunday 29 September 2013

Party Conference Watch 2013: The Labour Party

Brace yourselves for this one, the fourth in a continuing series...

The Today programme's coverage of the fourth of the party conferences, the Labour Party's, got underway on the first day of the conference, much as their Liberal Democrat conference coverage began, with the highlighting of a key policy announcement - Labour's decision to get rid of the spare room subsidy ('bedroom tax'). Sarah Montague and BBC political correspondent Ben Wright began (at 7.09 am) with a three-minute preview of that, plus some childcare proposals from Yvette Cooper.

A 7-minute interview with Hilary Benn, the shadow minister responsible for the spare room subsidy policy, followed at 7.34. Sarah Montague raised the perception that Labour favours spending on welfare (given that the polls are deeply sceptical about spending on welfare) and plugged away at that issue, as well as asking about whether people earning £60,000 are rich, and about the Damian McBride revelations about Labour infighting. John Humphrys then intervened to ask him about his dad's health and to ask him to convey their good wishes to him. I counted just three interruptions.

The coverage really got underway on Monday, with Justin Webb reporting from Brighton though the Islamist terrorist attack in Kenya naturally meant that Ed Balls lost the prestigious 8.10 interview spot. Still, there was plenty of Labour Party conference coverage.

Justin Webb and the BBC's Gary O'Donaghue previewed Ed Balls's conference speech at 6.36 (for about three minutes), discussing two Labour announcements - one saying they would like to involve the Office for Budget Responsibility in the drawing-up of the party's spending plans (before the election), other about extra childcare. GO'D said the OBR announcement was "an attempt to neutralise the usual Tory attack on 'You can't trust Labour with the money'". As far as the OBR's present remit stands, that "doesn't look as if it's possible. And Labour knows that, attempting to put the Tories in a particular position where they effectively refuse to allow an independent body to do this." After all, he said, there's already the Institute for Fiscal Studies, "a well-respected outfit out there who does these sort of things anyway, so you do wonder if this is a slightly manufactured row." This seems an example of a BBC reporter unspinning the spin, and not to Labour's advantage.

At 6.53, Justin gave his own (5-minute) report, talking to Graham Stringer MP, David Blunkett MP, Eddie Izzard, Stella Creasy MP, and then contrasted all their "happy talk in a hotel bar" with "ordinary people" on the pier - various vox pops. One didn't know who Ed Miliband is, another said he'd no personality and they're all the same, and a third said he isn't convinced by him, thinks he's a puppet and is "desperately disappointed by him." (Ouch!)

At 7.16 Justin talked to Paul Johnson of the afore-mentioned Institute for Fiscal Studies about Labour's spending plans (for around four minutes). Mr Johnson sounded sceptical, saying that Labour's OBR plan would only work (after a change in the law to alter the body's remit) if the opposition party in question gave them its manifesto many months before an election, not just "dumping" it on them a month before an election - given that most manifestos are pretty vague and the OBR would need to go to-and-fro between the parties seeking clarification. As for his own assessment of Labour's spending plans, Mr Johnson said that "as ever" there's nothing "terribly precise" about them, and that it's a "slightly odd" for Labour to be focusing on these "little changes" when the OBR say that, if they win in 2015, they will have to make another 10% public spending cuts from 2016-17. - "a really, really big change relative to the relatively small tax-and-spending plans that the Labour Party's talking about at the moment." [A bit of a thumbs-down for Labour there].

Ed Balls arrived for interview at 7.35. Justin asked him about Labour and socialism, and that OBR plan ["that's a stunt though, isn't it, because you know it's not going to happen?"]. Ed Balls did exactly what Gary O'Donaghue predicted he'd do, and launched a party political point against the Conservatives for playing party politics. Justin then asked him why all his announcements seem to be about either spending more or reversing present cuts, rather that being about the big spending cuts or tax rises that "will be necessary if the deficit is to be brought down". He then pressed him on the pace of Labour's deficit reduction. Damian McBride was the final topic. Ed Balls was shocked, shocked I tells ya, about what Damian McBride had done. There were 12 interruptions in a nine-and-a-half minute interview.

At 8.25 Today discussed  the play 'The Confessions of Gordon Brown' - a play being performed at the Labour Party conference, though which its creators say Labour banned from being advertised in the conference brochure. Justin Webb went to see it nonetheless. After a clip, he talked to its director Kevin Toolis and to Gordon Brown's pollster Deborah Mattinson. She found it "quite poignant", "accurate" and "very fair". Mr Toolis described Mr Brown as a "morally good man" but also as "our greatest failure as prime minister in two hundred years", saying that "in office he was an abysmal failure". Justin raised Damian McBride. Deborah agreed that something "nasty" was going on in politics at that time, said that Gordon Brown's role in that was unclear but that he certainly "turned a blind eye" to the "terrible things" that were going on. Kevin Toolis compared him to MacBeth, and said that he didn't just allow these things, he "directed them - him and his lieutenants". 

At 8.37 Nick Robinson chatted to Justin Webb about the "danger" of having policies too early, and about the OBR announcement and Damian McBride: "When you asked Ed Balls whether he knew about Mr McBride's excesses and he said he knew nothing about it at all until the worst came out, I could sense a collective eyebrow not so much twitching as hitting the ceiling around Brighton. There will be deep scepticism about that." [Ouch!]

Finally, at 8.55 came a chat with Steve Richards and the Independent and Rachel Sylvester of the Times. Justin introduced it by noting what he'd found when talking to people on Brighton Pier, namely "that they had no political views at all, no interest, no knowledge" and "if they did have a scintilla of a view, it was that Ed Miliband wasn't up to the job." Both guests backed Labour's OBR proposals. As for Ed Miliband "not being any good", they said the issue matters "hugely". Steve Richards says Ed is more experienced than any other recent election-winning opposition leader (namely, David Cameron and Tony Blair) having been a cabinet minister, and a Treasury adviser before that. 

Tuesday's edition saw another 4-minute discussion between Justin Webb and Gary O'Donaghue at 6.34, previewing Ed Miliband's conference speech. They talked about a Labour proposal about changing business rates for small businesses, and a commission on housing stock [headed by the former head of the BBC trust, Sir Michael Lyons]. Justin described the former as "small bore" but the latter as "a bigger deal". GO'D said, "The previous Labour government promised to build two million new houses over a ten-year period, and didn't really get started on that in a proper way." They also talked about Damian McBride and the roll of Ed Balls. Justin and GO'D said Ed Balls must be pretty confident to justify his 'I know nothing' position.

At 6.50, Justin talked about Labour's attitudes to nuclear weapons. Nick Brown, former chief whip, says Britain shouldn't renew Trident, so Justin interviewed the relevant shadow minister Kevan Jones about that. Mr Jones wants Trident renewed. Justin pressed him quite firmly (from an anti-Trident stance) [4 interruptions in three and a half minutes].

At 7.14 Labour's policy on HS2 come up for discussion, after Ed Balls sounded a sceptical note about it. Justin reported from a fringe conference, and heard first from two pro-HS2 delegates, before pressing Labour advisor Sir John Armitt (another supporter of HS2) of the Olympic Delivery Authority on whether Ed Balls is playing party politics with HS2. [No Labour opponents of HS2 were heard from here].

Harriet Harman was next up for a seven-and-a-half minute interview (at 7.50). Justin asked her about HS2, quoting Bob Crow's "sell-out" accusation to her, and tried to get to grips with her jelly-like wobbling over the issue. He then asked about Labour's "airy-fairy" housing announcement, including new towns and garden cities, and about Labour's position on house prices. (HH wobbled again over that). [9 interruptions].

Nick Robinson popped up at 8.19, talking HS2 and the upcoming Ed Miliband speech (for about 5 minutes). "Move along here, nothing to see, nothing has happened" was Nick's verdict on Harriet Harman's interview, before suggesting that Ed Balls was being populist and raising the concerns of business leaders that Mr Balls was creating the atmosphere for the doubts about HS2 to spread. On Ed Miliband's speech, Nick previewed the small business rate cut proposal and housing.

Finally, at 8.46, Justin talked to John Cridland of the CBI about Labour's small businesses proposal. Sir John, who described the proposed tax changes as "not particularly pro-business", was largely critical of the "divisive" measures. [Not a fan at all.]

The coverage on Wednesday's programme kicked off with another (three-minute) Justin Webb-Gary O'Donaghue chat, introduced by a clip from a senior executive at British Gas warning that Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy bills could lead to the lights going out in Britain. Then came a clip of Chuka Umunna describing that as "absurd" and attacking the energy companies. Gary said Labour want this fight, thinking it will "resonate out there". He then read from Ed Milibands's letter to the energy companies. On the wider picture, Justin said the papers didn't reckon much to Ed's speech, but that Labour's minders "are pretty pleased to be in the position they're in". GO'D described it as "a gamble", with echoes of the 1970s. [Sounds fair enough to me].

Justin Webb then reported from Crawley (at 7.33 - a five-and-a-half minute report), one of Labour's target seats. Justin began by describing the "style" and "substance" in Ed's speech, but would it convince people that he was a credible prime minister? The first vox pop said "I don't even know who he is". The next batch said they'd never voted and weren't interested in politics. Justin then went to a pub to watch the speech with five locals. Though they found a few things to like - the business tax proposal, his views on women, what he said about leadership, they didn't think there was any substance behind his speech, one calling it a "pantomime" performance, another "a tick-list speech". They didn't like his jokes either. As for his energy freeze proposal, one of  them called it "a rabbit out of the hat", another said it was "easy for him to say it". They were also "confused" about his position on fracking and the environment. One liked his housing proposal, one called it appalling. To Justin's closing question, "Does this speech in any of you make you more able to see him as a prime minister?" got a resounding and unanimous chorus of "no"s. [Ed must have been choking on his muesli at this point! - which calls for another 'Ouch!']

At 8.10 came the big interview between Justin Webb and Ed Miliband. Justin pressed him quite hard. It was much tougher that Evan Davis's interview with Nick Clegg, really grilling him over Labour's energy freeze policy and quite strongly over deficit reduction. The interview lasted exactly 15 minutes (to the second), and contained 26 interruptions. It dealt with just four issues, which I'll break down, along with the percentage of the interview spent on each topic:

1. Was Ed's speech a throw-back to the 1970s? (15.7%)
2. Labour's energy price freeze proposal (43.1%)
3. Deficit, debt reduction (17.6%)
4. Ed's poor poll figures and the fact that people don't think he's prime ministerial (23.6%)

This was much less belittling than the interview John Humphrys conducted with Nigel Farage, but it wasn't an easy interview for the Labour leader. Far from it.

Ed's interview no sooner ended than Nick Robinson popped up again to give his post-match analysis. I found Ed pretty boring. Nick found what he said "fascinating". Nick finds everything fascinating. [I bet he'd even find this post fascinating!]

Now, I found Ed Miliband's performance during this interview dire - and I'm not alone in thinking that.

This edition of the programme ended with a discussion between Justin, Simon Hoggart of the Observer, and Mary Ann Sieghart of the Independent. Mary Ann said Labour had gone back the 1970s, and described Ed's interview as "unconvincing". Simon said he was "terrible". Mary Ann thinks his energy freeze policy will fall apart and said that Ed couldn't even answer Justin's questions about it. Simon was more positive about the energy freeze policy, though not about Ed, saying he lives "in a bubble" of people obsessed with policy and finds it hard to reach out to ordinary people. [A final 'ouch!' is called for there.]

Thursday's programme could be said to have had a short coda on the Labour leader's conference speech. [Actually two, if you count Sarah Montague and Chris Mason's reporting of Lord Mandelson's criticisms of Ed Miliband's energy price freeze policy as a throw-back to Old Labour at 6.37]. Here's how the Today website describes it:
Ed Miliband, in his conference speech, used an yachting analogy - saying the recovery was not going to float everyone's boat, only those with yachts. Sir Robin Knox Johnston, one of Britain's most successful sailors and the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world, and Shirley Robertson, a Scottish sailor and double gold Olympic medallists, discuss whether the sport suffers at the hands of such depictions.
Both said it did. That said, Ed Miliband and his speech weren't really discussed here.


Today's coverage of the Labour conference was extensive. The last time I covered the party conference season in detail James Naughtie was reporting from the Labour conference, and I found him rather too cosy with the party. That certainly couldn't be said of Justin Webb this time. Today's coverage of the Labour Party conference in general was not biased towards Labour. I will admit that I would have expected it to have been biased towards Labour, going off past experience, but, no, it wasn't. Tough interviews and critical voices from beyond the party, plus the programme's own reports and commentaries, saw to that. [For anyone who's skipped to the conclusions, the evidence is outlined above in some detail!]

So there you go. The Conservatives are up next. Who will they get from the Today programme? How will they fair?

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