Labour shackled by fear and inertia in Manchester

The Labour party has been "shackled by fear and inertia", declared Len McCluskey this morning.

Signs of this fear and inertia are everywhere at this Labour conference. From the timid pinks and blue daubing the conference stage to the impossibly vague speeches promising "hard ideas" and "different spending", the party seems almost physically paralysed by fear.

With just months to go until a general election you might expect Labour to be enthusiastic and even excited about the prospect of returning to government. In reality they appear utterly petrified.

McCluskey today claimed the party had suffered a "near death experience" in Scotland and it's an experience that has clearly left them feeling spooked.

The Scottish referendum campaign frightened the party in ways that nobody here dares to admit. The prospect of losing not just their own supporters but an entire country has exposed the fundamental weaknesses of the party's support and brand.

The sight of the entire political and business establishment crushing the 'Yes' campaign is a grizzly premonition of the fate facing Ed Miliband and his party next year. But it's not just fear of the coming election campaign that is petrifying the party. There is also the wider fear of what the party will have to do if they win.

The chief bogeyman keeping them awake at night is shadow chancellor Ed Balls. After spending years attacking the Tories for their austerity programme, Balls is now preparing to implement an austerity programme of his own.

"It will mean cuts," he admitted to delgates today, before quickly moving on to talk about raising the minimum wage and extending free childcare.

His announcement that there will be a real-terms cut to child benefit was meant to give the impression that Labour is taking the "hard choices" it needs to make if it returns to government.

But while the child benefit cut will make a big difference to the lives of already struggling families it will make almost no difference to Britain's huge public sector deficit. Erasing the deficit, as Labour has pledged to do, will require either huge tax rises, or huge spending cuts, or both. Despite Labour's claims to be helping working people, their plans will inevitably lead to millions of people working harder, for longer, for less. This is a painful truth, which Labour remains terrified of ever saying out loud.

The slogan for this conference is "Labour's plan for Britain's future". Right now it seems that Labour's only plan is to slip into government without ever spelling out what that plan actually is.