At the Labour conference in Manchester there is an area dedicated to “press briefings”. It is a place traditionally used by cabinet ministers to explain policy announcements after their platform speech. This year it has been deserted.
The briefing zone, littered with empty plastic cups and discarded newspapers, is a fitting metaphor for a Labour conference largely bereft of new policy ideas, or even very much policy debate.
Gordon Brown may lead a party divided over his leadership, but he can draw comfort that – for now at least – he does not sit astride the kind of policy divide that has split the party in the past.
Michael Gove, a leading Conservative frontbencher, claimed recently that New Labour died when Tony Blair left the stage and that Labour never recovered its policy verve.
“New Labour without Tony Blair is like Genesis without Peter Gabriel,” he said.
Mr Brown appears to have positioned himself in the centre of the party, broadly following the route mapped out by Tony Blair of mixing an active state with market forces to pursue “progressive aims”.
The prime minister declared in his keynote speech at the conference that his over-arching aim was “fairness” – the kind of political objective unlikely to stir objections in any party. A list of initiatives such as free cancer drugs, better childcare and subsidised broadband access for children followed, but no sense of a new direction.
Denis MacShane, seen as a Blairite MP, argues that Labour is suffering a “policy vacuum” and the current leadership crisis masks a “deeper crisis in late 20th-century social democracy”.
“My fear is that if Labour is defeated at the next general election we will move sharply to the left. That seems to have happened in every other [leftwing] party in Europe,” Mr MacShane says.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, an independent think-tank, and a former policy chief for Tony Blair, agrees the conference was largely devoid of fresh policies.
But he adds: “It wasn’t about a new agenda, it was about staying in the game.”
Mr Taylor says the fact that the government coffers are empty has also put a brake on ambitious new policies and that Labour will have to adapt to a new financial reality. “There will be forced changes in government emphasis and priorities,” he says.
“But Labour people believe they have won the big policy arguments. The only people crying out for a new policy agenda are the traditional left.”
That may not be strictly true. Some on what used to be called the “Blairite” wing of the party – such as Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers – want Mr Brown to be a more aggressive moderniser, promoting more personal choice and a less centralised state.
But their principal argument often appears to be with Mr Brown himself, rather than his policies.
It is the Labour left that has its tail up. Although Mr Brown insists he remains “pro-business”, his attacks on City excess and promises to toughen regulation of financial services drew applause from those who see “clear red water” opening up between Labour and the Tories.
Mr Brown argued recent events showed the need for an active state, in contrast to Mr Cameron’s vision of a smaller state. The prime minister’s speech, portraying the Tories as friends of the rich and City speculators, played well in the hall.
For now, Mr Brown’s supporters scoff at the idea of “a lurch to the left”. However, modernisers like Mr MacShane fear the left could take this agenda much further if the party loses the next election, including calling for higher taxes on the rich and windfall taxes on big companies.
Neal Lawson, who chairs Compass, the influential left-wing group, argues that Labour should prepare for its sharpest policy shift since 1945, saying that the moment of the left has come.
“Now is the moment that demands active state intervention,” he says.
“This is a new paradigm, epoch-making stuff, which will last not just one year or 18 months but for a 30-year cycle.”
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