Where has Labour’s fire gone?

The atmosphere in the Labour conference is close to paralysis. The conference centre has all the energy and vigour of an old people's home. Even the applause sounds as if it's coming from the bottom of a well.

It's not entirely their fault. Campaigners, MPs and journalists alike have only just got back from the gruelling, emotional Scotland campaign. They all want to go home. They don't want to be here.

But there's something more fundamental going on as well. Labour feels utterly out of ideas. It is coasting along on gimmicks and mood music.

Ed Balls' speech this morning was full of functionless PR exercises. Ministerial pay will be cut by five per cent and then pegged to deficit reduction. The winter fuel allowance will be cut for the top five per cent of pensioners. Child benefit rises will be capped at one per cent for the first two years of the next parliament.

None of these measures will even chip away at the deficit. They are there to give the impression of fiscal rectitude, but not provide the reality. They are utterly pointless, the aimless fidgeting of a cynical man.

As it happens, I would not support Labour aping the Tories on austerity. But if that's what the party wants to do, then it should actually do it, not engage in the symbolism of doing it. If it wants to take on the markets and create a new type of British economy, which I would be rather more in favour of, they should do that. Instead, the party does nothing, and spends its time unveiling symbols of doing both.

It used to be easy to forgive Ed Miliabnd the blatant gimmickry of policies like an energy price freeze, because you felt they came from a genuine intellectual place. He was reappraising the role of markets in the modern world. He might reach interesting or radical conclusions.

But there can't be excuses anymore. It's months from the election and whether you like Labour's policies or hate them, they are irrelevant. They send a message. They do not actually change anything.

Labour policy on low incomes is to raise poverty wages slightly in six years. On housing it will implement a mansion tax – a pointless and ineffective policy which does nothing to address unfairness. There is no talk of anything concrete, like reforming the regressive council tax bands which make property charges so iniquitous.

Perhaps there will be something substantial in Miliband's final speech, but so far the conference feels dejected, anaemic and lost in a labyrinth of pointless initiatives. This is politics as gameplay.

The bitter irony is that the party has the right diagnosis. Cameron and Osborne are creating a low-paid, vulnerable workforce totally at the mercy of their employers. They are staff, but treated as self-employed. They are on zero-hours contracts. They are paid a pittance.

Employment tribunals have been effectively blocked by the introduction of prohibitive charges.

They are taking two jobs to make ends meet. They are working and in poverty. Even if it wasn't morally intolerable, it would be economically unsustainable. These are workers without the spending power to buy things, living in a consumer economy, increasingly reliant on tax credits and private borrowing.

Labour realises the problem but it does not have the chutzpah or the drive or the ambition to fix it. Instead, a procession of clapped out PR bullet points are trotted out. Voters are fed crisps and told it's a sunday roast.

No wonder everyone seems so tired. There's nothing to get excited about.