Relying on Tory abstentions won’t be enough, Labour needs a vision beyond infrastructure projects - David Blunkett
However, having led on a document for Keir Starmer in relation to learning and skills, and with a substantial number of fringe meetings on the issue of education and lifelong learning to speak to, this year it was appropriate.
This week, the conference met in the shadow of the terrible events in the Middle East, with the inevitable concentration of news – quite rightly – being on the terror attack and the response by Israel.
Following the spectacular win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election last week – a seat previously held by the SNP – there was a sense of genuine optimism that Labour was on the edge of returning to government.
Taken together with the PR disaster which constituted the government’s handling of the announcement (including the run up to it) of the cancellation of the north-west leg of HS2, it was not surprising that Keir Starmer and his team were oozing confidence.
Of course, by next year, the Conservatives will have been in office for 32 out of 45 years. A reminder of the reality of political life in Britain.
Yet, with 12 months still to go before a General Election must be called, I can't help but offer a word of caution. As the old saying has it, ‘the party's not over until the fat lady sings’.
What I've come to call ‘political amnesia’ is a factor that can't be ignored. It's amazing how quickly people forget. Rishi Sunak, in his speech to the Conservatives in Manchester, talked about setting aside 30 years of consensus and the need for change. This would be a remarkable assertion in any circumstance, but with the backcloth of the last eight years – including Brexit, and five different Prime Ministers – this is breath-taking.
He was, in part, attempting the successful ploy of John Major in 1992 to present himself, rather than his party, as offering a fresh start. A difficult trick to pull off at the best of times, but when you haven’t even been elected by your own party membership and you carry the baggage of having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, it's a brave man or woman who would attempt this feat.
I won't repeat what I’ve said previously about the cancellation of the eastern leg of HS2, which would have served Sheffield and South Yorkshire, Leeds and the West Yorkshire conurbation. Suffice it to say that there was a regrettable silence not only across the UK, but in the north of England about the fact that none of the money ‘saved’ by this cancellation has emerged as new investment in Yorkshire and the Humber.
So, promises of £20bn of the alleged £36bn saving for cancelling the north-west leg to be spent in the North, need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
As the supposed list of projects to be funded over the next 15 to 20 years emerged, they also started to unravel.
Projects that have already begun; those that had been promised several times and then cancelled – including the upgrading of the Hope Valley link between Sheffield and Manchester and electrification, are now described by Downing Street as “purely indicative”.
In reality, much of the Hope Valley work has actually been completed, but the promised electrification was cancelled by the then-Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, in July 2017, when he said: “We no longer need to electrify every line to achieve the same significant improvements to journeys”.
But despite the opinion polls, I remain to be convinced that the disdain for the Conservatives’ record and the deep divisions which are responsible for a lack of clarity about their purpose and values will be enough to ensure a substantial Labour victory at the General Election.
Relying on Tory abstention is not enough. Which is why the very welcome and much more substantial update presentations at Labour's conference in Liverpool are so welcome.
However, over the next 12 months, it will be vital for Labour to offer a vision and hope which transcends (important as it is) road and rail infrastructure and turns the critical importance of investment in protecting our climate into a genuine promise of something better, rather than a narrative which leads people to believe they're going to be punished.
Having written about this over the last couple of years, I was once again bemused by the Prime Minister's assertion that delay in taking action would somehow save people money, when it is self-evident that the harsher the measures you have to take down the line, the more difficult they will inevitably become.
But it's the investment in equipping the nation to cope with the acceleration of artificial intelligence and robotics, the change in the world of work and the substantial upgrading of our competitiveness and therefore our productivity, which surely must also rank as a top line priority.
Unless we get this right, it doesn't matter how quick our journeys are from one town or city to another. It's not change within a political party alone that, in the end, will win people over, but a promised change in their daily lives. The question for the months ahead is “what kind of change", and, above all, who will benefit?
David Blunkett is a Labour Party politician, and served as the MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough.