Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Analysis

Crises of confidence in UK party conference land

  • Labour leader Ed Miliband (Photo: net_efekt)

The September party conference season has always been political jamboree time in the UK. For a caffeine-fuelled month, ordinary party members have the chance to hob-nob and get drunk with the country's senior politicians, while the parties themselves get a few days of blanket coverage by the media.

For the lobbyists and journalists who have to attend the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences, this means three weeks of too much alcohol, a diet of canapés and finger food, and not enough sleep.

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  • Labour kicked off the UKs conference season in Manchester this week (Photo: Paul Simpson)

This week Labour gathered in Manchester, while Birmingham and Glasgow will host the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, respectively, in the coming weeks.

Ukip will host their conference in Doncaster, one of England's poorest towns, and traditionally a Labour stronghold where Labour's Ed Miliband has his constituency. Other minor parties will also hold their own gatherings.

In the past, party conferences were always held at English coastal towns, with the three parties taking it in turns to visit Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton. Now they tend to shun the faded sea-side towns in favour of northern cities with better facilities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Moreover, with party policy often being decided by delegates voting on the conference floor, the four-day conferences really mattered.

As the parties have become more managerial and professionalised, the conferences increasingly resemble a glorified trade fair that gives political parties the chance to make a bit of money. NGOs and public and private sector lobby groups pay thousands of pounds for an exhibition stand outside the conference hall where they can give out freebies and grab hold of unsuspecting politicians.

Meanwhile, most of the actual politics has been stripped away, leaving virtually all major party policy decisions to be decided by the leadership without the approval of rank-and-file members, reducing the conferences to a 'talking shop'.

But this autumn, delegates have more to talk about than usual: UK politicians are suffering from what appears to be a collective crisis of confidence.

Scotland may have voted last week to keep the UK together, but the 300-year Union has never come so close to breaking before and is unlikely to be the same again.

Not only that, but with eight months until next May's general election none of the major parties is in good shape. The centre-left Labour party holds a five percent lead in opinion polls but has, in Ed Miliband, an unconvincing leader and little in the way of policy.

Although the UK economy is - after four years of stagnation - finally starting to perform strongly, support for David Cameron's governing Conservatives has not increased. Nonetheless, the economy and social policy such as the NHS and education will be the main battlegrounds next year.

Finance spokesman Ed Balls told delegates on Monday that a Labour government would stick to most of the government's austerity plans and would not increase borrowing to increase public spending, in an attempt to re-assure voters that Labour would not open the cheque book. The 2008 financial crisis cost Labour its reputation for economic competence and opinion polls consistently indicate that voters trust Cameron's economic team more than Labour's.

Conference season is also a litmus test of which issues are at the front of a party's priorities.

The UK's place in the EU has been little discussed by the Labour party this week. Only a handful of fringe events focused on the EU, while Miliband described the Conservatives' threat to leave the EU if they cannot renegotiate membership as "a threat to prosperity" for the UK in his speech on Tuesday (23 September).

For his part, the party's Europe spokesman, Gareth Thomas, backed the introduction of a "red card" mechanism that would allow a group of national parliaments to veto a proposal for EU law. But for most of the Labour party's faithful, relations with the EU is a fringe issue.

It will, however, be one of the hot topics for the Conservatives.

While most British politicos were either sunning themselves on the beach or fretting about the possibility of the Scottish people sending the United Kingdom to its grave, the Conservative party spent the summer having yet another internal spasm over its attitude towards the UK’s EU membership.

The defection to Ukip of Douglas Carswell, one of the Conservatives' more prominent back-bench MPs, has prompted a by-election which is set to see a landslide victory for the anti-EU party in October, and Ukip is hoping for further defections in the coming months.

Nigel Farage's anti-EU party, which topped the poll at May's European elections, is targeting about 12 seats as it bids to finally secure representatives in the House of Commons.

David Cameron may have promised to renegotiate membership and then hold an in/out referendum, but the reality is that his party is still undecided on whether that is enough to satisfy them.

The Liberal Democrats, who have felt the wrath of voters in every election since they agreed to be the junior coalition partner in Cameron's government in 2010, are still languishing on around 10 percent of the vote.

But they, too, are very much in the game if neither Labour or the Conservatives can win a majority, and if they can hold on to enough MPs to be king-makers again.

With the UK's establishment parties both uninspired and uninspiring, next year's election has become one which neither the Conservative or Labour parties expect to win.

Talk to Conservative insiders and they will, in the main, forecast a Labour victory next May. Similarly, large number of Labour supporting pundits think that Cameron will keep the keys to No 10 Downing Street.

That is what makes the next few months in UK politics so fascinating. Whether it is over the economy, the EU or the UK itself, mainstream UK politicians are on shaky ground and battling a crisis of confidence.

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