Party Conferences in Focus

All three party leaders have faced stern questions over policy.

As a new term dawns upon us we can perhaps reflect on what has been the most politically intriguing interval in a generation: the News of the World’s demise; riots on the streets of multiple British cities; widespread changes in how our constituencies are constructed, and finally, the unnerving state of a global and domestic economy on the periphery of collapse. Needless to say the intrigue is heightened by the governance of the day being handled by two parties, rather than the one – the effects of which have yet to become fully apparent, and yet I should imagine they won’t until polling day. On the subject of polling, we cannot forget the nuanced messages local elections and the Alternative Vote referendum have provided us – although not so nuanced if you’re a Lib Dem or a supporter of AV (hint – they are the same.)

We also start term on the back of party conference season, and having attended Labour’s in the glorious city of Liverpool, it is fair to say each of the big three are playing their cards fairly close to their chest on how they’ll map out their future policies. ‘Not easy, but right’ cried Nick Clegg, against a ‘Fast Buck’ Ed Miliband articulated nasally, and ‘Your Country Needs You’ implored Dave, his once sleek dome of a forehead accentuated by crinkles. Okay, let’s be fair, if you’re expecting a reasoned, impartial dissection of the party conferences then you should probably stop reading now. I only attended one conference, I was a Labour delegate, I am a Labour Party member, a Labour Party Councillor since May and a Trade Unionist for as long as my working life has existed. My colours were nailed to the mast when my Mam not only voted for Neil Kinnock, but then did it again. It was once said of Gordon Brown that the reason he was so unpopular was that he genuinely couldn’t see why anyone would vote Tory, whereas Blair could – and in that argument I’m fully on the side of GorBro. However this does not mean I cannot be critical of my own party, or see the merit of other causes. We’ll keep things Chronological with the Liberals.

It’s fair to say I would not want to be Nick Clegg right now. Though as it happens I tend to think that he, somehow, has managed to not only retain but increase his credibility come his Party’s Conference in Birmingham. His biggest coup, the AV referendum, was a disaster. Forcing an unwanted discourse on minor political reform on an electorate struggling to put food on the table was akin to Roosevelt asking Americans to make paper hats to combat the depression. To his credit, Clegg moved the narrative towards a more pro-coalition and electorate-neutral message of giving ‘Gordon Brown’s Backroom Boys’ (Balls and Miliband) a bit of a verbal shoeing, as well as the popular line of mentioning Alastair Darling/the Labour Party have messed up the country’s finances and ‘played politics with the economy.’ This may be a little hard to swallow because of Vince Cable’s pre-election promise of cutting the structural deficit by half in four years: a plan akin to Darling’s policy. Clegg also praised his party’s considerable achievements given their minority partnership in government; raising the Income Tax band to £10,000 and ending child detention by the Border Agency. There was perhaps a clearer indication that Clegg would like to continue his party’s closeness to the Conservatives’ liberal ideological heritage. His right-hand man and ex-minister David Laws’ advocated removing the 50p tax rate, claiming the retention of which would see companies and businesses desert the country. Recent confidence seems to have restored a bit of morale in the Lib Dems, however, this is not the Lib Dems who nibbled away at Labour pre-Coalition with lefty policies such as Charles Kennedy’s 2p on income tax for education. This is the beginning of a party establishing itself as one of low taxes, free markets and decentralisation, and it could well steal a march on the Tories over the next three years.

Moving on to the Labour Party Conference, back in the freshly won city of Liverpool in the local elections of May gone, Labour had not been here since Neil Kinnock’s infamous speech expelling the members of the Militant Tendency in the eighties. For those who don’t know the history, Kinnock basically gave the Commies on Liverpool City Council a kick down the long road to modernisation which would cumulate in New Labour. This time round, the leadership was hoping to put a bit of distance between the left of the party again. The result was a very dry speech from Miliband littered with rather feeble attempts to be funny which unfortunately made him look like a lightweight in terms of policy. There were audible grumbles when Miliband mentioned it was right that Thatcher allowed people to buy their council houses (something I thought I’d never hear a Labour Leader say, not even Tony Blair). On the positive side, Ed made a cryptic/rhetoric reference to wealth ‘being built by hands, brains, scientists and small businesses not just an elite few’, which sounded like building an economy where employment not only means a steady wage, but much-needed vocation. Aside from Miliband there were competent speeches by Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls and Hilary Benn and a few vapid ones, most notably from Caroline Flint who acts as if flicking her hair and exposing an extra inch of cleavage will build more houses. A small note to the curious inclusion of 16-year old Rory Weal who wowed the crowd by rhetorically asking ‘what Cameron would say when he couldn’t afford to go to school.’ Papers got on to it. Turns out he’s from a family of millionaires. I believe in Internet etiquette this is where you type ‘Fail’. A closing speech from Harriet Harman was met with a slow drawl of a response of ‘Thank you Harriet….that was sensational…’ from outgoing National Executive Chair Norma Stephenson. Very deliberate and very amusing. Stephenson had on the first day of the conference announced her retirement from her post as Chair, and one couldn’t help but feel moved when she shed tears over the terminus of what has been terrific service to the Labour Party.

Finally, on to the Conservatives, whose paragraph will be slightly briefer than the previous two as their party conference is just (as the time of writing) kicking into full swing. However, I’ll have some fun speculating. Cameron’s star is undeterred by recent criticism by Tory backbencher Andrew Tyrie about the one-dimensional nature of Tory economic policy, accompanied by jitters on the continent over the Eurozone. Cameron is widely expected to promote his party’s work on civil liberties, emphasise the progress of the ‘Arab spring’ and try and promote a plan for jobs and social housing. A clear distinction with Thatcher is Cameron’s conference advocacy of putting the money from the tenant’s right to buy their council house into a slush fund for making rents more affordable. On the other hand, Thatcher preferred the money to go to the Treasury to cripple Local Authorities and ergo communities which she felt were breeding grounds for Socialism. This is a fairly solid policy from Conservatives, without commenting on whether I agree with it or not it at least sets the agenda which Cameron has to address the housing deficit of the country. Interestingly, Cameron appears to have pulled the plug from the life support of the ludicrous ‘Big Society’ project. Presumably it got to the point where not even he knew what it meant. Unfortunately, for however bulletproof Cameron may be in the opinion polls, what comes up must inevitably come down. He could do well to identify his weak links in light of Tyrie’s criticism and record Public Sector Net Borrowing for August. It’s George Osborne, and a well-timed switcheroo with Ken Clarke could just be the Tories’ own ‘tough medicine’ for life after the Coalition.

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