British politics has at last moved into the 21st century. Ed Miliband is the first leader of a major party to live with a “partner” – that strange word reeking of an accountancy firm rather than romance. Perhaps the new Labour leader will reveal he has a red flag tattooed on a buttock, and start convening shadow cabinet meetings via Facebook.
Was Labour excited by it all? No. The day after the thrilling anointment was flat and turgid. Perhaps the party was suffering from a tinge of buyer’s remorse. Most likely – with the diversion of the leadership election concluded – Labour at last began to comprehend the darkling plain of opposition that stretches before it.
The party talked to itself even more than usual inside the hall. The day was devoted to organisation rather than policy, a discussion kicked off by the party’s general secretary, Ray Collins, a man more secretary than general. “Let us fight now for the right to lead our country again,” he said, in the tone one might use to say: “Let’s have a nice cup of tea.”
There was some purpose to the debate. Speaker after speaker emphasised that Labour did best where it campaigned hardest, and backed this up with evidence. At the next election, all party strategists will be less deluded by the air war and invest more in the ground war: less television make-up, more shoe leather.
The desperation of this event is exemplified by the exhibition hall. In the Blairite heyday everyone wanted a stand at the Labour conference. Now it is so underpopulated that some exhibitors sprawl across acreage that a supermarket might envy. Most of those remaining represent unions or obscure causes, for example, the Bolivia Information Forum. Business is almost wholly absent.
An exception, he bookmakers Ladbrokes were, right by the entrance, confronting delegates with their bleak assessment: Ed Miliband odds-on not to be prime minister this side of 2020. No one put money down to argue with this.
There was a curious sidelight on Sunday on Mr Miliband’s success this weekend from the political betting expert Mike Smithson, who noted the late splurge of money, as the votes began to be counted on Friday, for Ed over David, hot favourite before the polls closed. “Is there information out there?” he asked.
On his website, politicalbetting.com, Mr Smithson also noted that there was a similar late movement to Harriet Harman hours before she was unexpectedly, to most people, chosen as deputy leader in 2007.
Bookmakers were relaxed about the suspicion of insider dealing. “One of those things,” said Darren Haines, spokesman for the Irish firm Paddy Power. “There would be people out there who know something, just as when we bet on a reality TV show or who’ll be the next manager of a football club.”
No odds yet sighted on the next Labour leader. One might have fancied a bet on the relaxed figure who made such a graceful and humorous speech just before the announcement on Saturday. You know, the one who looked like Gordon Brown. Heavens, it was Gordon Brown.