September has been and gone. Schools and colleges are back in session, lethargic students are making their way to university in dribs and drabs, and England’s party conference season is now over. The three main parties have been jostling for position over the past three weeks, trying to search for electoral definition whilst drumming up fervour within their faithful troops. So what do we know? Well, with a more populist vision Labour seem to have sprung to the Left, with Cameron attempting to build fort on the increasingly vacant political centre ground. Whilst Nick Clegg has revealed he will go to bed with either of them. Like we didn’t know that already.
Indeed, Clegg had a tough time over the party conference season. The Lib Dem leader attempted to fix the party to the political centre, setting them as a ‘party of government’, with figures on the Left and Right wrestling in a desperate search for party definition. No less was this seen than in the case of Vince Cable, who initially refused to attend the party’s economic debate, seemingly in protest against Nick Clegg’s desire to continue down an economic route dictated by the Conservatives. Cable was eventually persuaded to attend, although further calls to change party policy with regards to the 50p tax rate and the ‘Bedroom Tax’ were met with strong support. Nick Clegg managed with difficulty to keep the party strapped to the political centre, with the possibility of a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives in 2015 still on the table. The Lib Dems are pursuing a route of pragmatism; a route which is gambling upon an electoral split in 2015. If this prospect becomes increasingly unlikely then don’t be surprised to see an increasing amount of principled dissenters emerge from the party woodwork.
And what of Labour? Well, prior to the conference season people were, as usual, lamenting about the lack of party direction, especially regarding Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ philosophy introduced and incepted the year before. Indeed, former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith even likened Labour’s policy review to a pregnant panda- it being a long time in the making but with no-one really sure if there is anything there. Nevertheless, despite all the questions and the doubts, Labour maintained resolute, and Miliband’s party set a firm vision to carry through to 2015.
Many see this current Labour administration as having returned to a populist approach; a shift to the Left; back to Labour’s roots. Indeed, Labour’s core aim to help the underprivileged many, not the rich few, rang out throughout the conference. What clinched a successful spell in Brighton however was the fact that this virtue manifested in the form of policies, something Labour supporters have been craving for three years. As a result, Labour pledged to scrap the Bedroom Tax, to strengthen the minimum wage, to build 1,000,000 new houses by 2020 and to freeze gas and electricity bills for every household and business in the UK for 20 months. Notwithstanding criticisms of this last policy, generally they have been lauded by those both internal and external to the party, as has Miliband’s conference speech, which once again demonstrated his ability on the conference stage. In an act of unprecedented adulation, the Telegraph’s Iain Martin even suggested it will eventually be regarded as one of the most significant platform addresses of the past two decades.
As I stated in an article last week, I don’t believe that Miliband can win a leadership battle with David Cameron, but the Labour leader knows he does not have to. Cameron has long shrugged Miliband off as an incompetent fool with few policies except an innate objection to the Conservatives. As Labour’s policy set grows however, Cameron would be wise not to shrug off Labour’s populism as nonchalantly as he has their leader. If he does he could face dire consequences in 2015.
Moving on to the Conservative Party conference, which has been held over the past few days (which I shall include in this month’s review for the sake of convenience) and we saw a much less compelling performance in the North-West than in Brighton. Indeed, although the conference was not ‘The Boris Show’ it was last year, it was overshadowed by circumstances outside the party’s control. Primarily, the conference had to share the column inches with Ed Miliband, and his recently declared war with the Daily Mail over the character assassination of his father, Ralph Miliband. Furthermore, the ever-present headache on the Right of British politics- UKIP- have once again been causing trouble within the ranks of their Blue neighbours, with Nigel Farage attending multiple fringe events and suggesting that a dozen Tory MPs would be open to a pact with his party. This prospect has been stoutly rejected by the Conservative party leadership, though Cameron still needs to find a strategy of his own to deal with potential Tory defectors come 2015.
“This was clearly a One Nation speech” expressed Michael Heseltine to the Daily Politics following Cameron’s conference speech; a speech filled with criticism of Labour’s past failings, and the message that- given the tools- the Conservatives can finish the good economic work they have started. Nevertheless, as Heseltine alluded, it seemed as though Cameron had used Labour’s populism to creep the Conservatives increasingly towards the political centre ground. Indeed, Cameron’s ‘opportunity for all’ rhetoric had much more in common with the preaching of New Labour or the Liberal Democrats than traditional Conservative values- leading Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph Benedict Brogan to posit that Cameron can now realistically be seen as the heir to Blair.
It is as though Ed Miliband’s Labour Party has moved from a New Labour property to a new One Nation one, and Cameron has crept behind their backs to steal some of the old furniture. This may prove a masterstroke come 2015, but for the time being there are still many uncertainties which surround the Conservatives’ election prospects, not least in the form of a striped Spector aiming to turn the Right purple and yellow.
Moving onto foreign affairs briefly, and during September we saw a momentous agreement struck- agreed upon by Russia, the US, the UN and Syria- to secure and destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014. This agreement was reached in the midst of American threats to use military force against the nation following chemical attacks in Damascus during August. Although many influential figures in US politics have suggested that this negotiation exhibited American weakness and submission to Russian motives, I for one support the efforts that the nations made to settle the issue diplomatically, although- as the US recognises- accepting that there may come a time for military intervention in the future.
Moreover, historic talks between Iran and America also demonstrated a significant diplomatic achievement during September. The two nations seem to want to end the bad blood which has plagued their relationship for the best part of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and move forward to cooperate mutually in maintaining safe, non-aggressive nuclear weapons programmes. This can only be positive news for the international community.
“Stop with all this ponderous political pilfering; we want to know about article of the month!” I hear you cry. Actually I don’t, because I’m not involved with the NSA. And who would say something like that anyway? Apart from Boris Johnson.
Nevertheless, I will adhere to this imaginary wish and tell you who has been awarded Backbench Article of the Month for September.
I have decided to give this month’s award to Elliot Burns and his article, ‘What to do about the great education problem?’
This piece was a systematic argument in support of a school voucher system to enable rising school standards. Indeed, although you may not agree with the principle of consumerism entering our education system, the article provides a thorough and detailed summary of the theory behind the vision, and addresses a fundamental concern within our society with an innovative proposal. Great work.
During September we also saw an article published on Backbench written by Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle entitled, ‘A new transport deal to help young people get on’. This was a fantastic coup and we are very grateful towards Maria for writing for us. I hope you will agree, no matter whether you concur with Maria’s proposals or not, that it is excellent that the site is able to attract notable politicians to think and write about policies that are designed for the benefit of young people in the UK.
That is all from me this month. I look forward to writing again next, where we will see whether the Labour Party has been able to press home their electoral advantage.