Party conference season: Who came out on top?

8 Oct 2013


Party conference season, a time of year that makes political enthusiasts quiver with nerdish glee. 2013 didn't fail to disappoint. We had the Lib Dems fighting to prove their worth in government, Labour pursuing ideological redefinition and the Conservatives asserting an economic battle soon overcome. But, as the countdown to 2015 began in earnest, who emerged with their reputation enhanced and confidence emboldened? Who reigned supreme in the battle of the conferences 2013? Backbench Commentators Joshua Godfrey, Samuel Mercer and Robert Porter voice their perspectives.

Stronger Economy, Fairer Society

Glasgow was this year’s conference destination for the Liberal Democrats; hoping everyone would be fluent with the line ‘stronger economy, fairer society’. I think everyone got the message, but could Nick Clegg and the party make us believe it?

Nothing was more important in Glasgow than Clegg asserting his leadership, this was helped by winning all but one key vote of party members and successfully receiving the backing of the party on the economy, making sure he was secure in his position as leader. A position which has otherwise been doubted in the media.

One of the key policy announcements of the conference, which was built up with much hype, was free school meals for infants, with the party claiming it will save families £400 per year. Supporters were delighted that the party was offering this up to all families in Britain, that the party is helping hard working (spelled properly, note to the Conservatives) families and giving children a chance in life.

This season’s conferences were important for both coalition parties, although it’s fair to say that the Lib Dems will come out of the coalition as a whole worse off in comparison with the Tories. The junior party has had to distance itself as much as possible from the Conservatives, and even then the most common insult I hear about the Lib Dems is ‘they were quick to jump into bed with the Tories’. 

This is why in his 51 minute speech Nick Clegg told the country the Tory plans he has had to block in the Cabinet room. He read the list passionately, proud of saying no to Cameron and, as you can imagine, there was rapturous applause from the Lib Dems in Glasgow; “We have our own values and beliefs” Nick is insisting; and we believe.

The overall tone of the gathering was much more optimistic compared to 12 months ago. Last year we were apologising for being Lib Dems, this year we are saying we’re proud to be Lib Dems. 

The party has taken a good bashing in the media, and with opinion poll ratings much lower than they were in 2010 when Nick Clegg stole the show on the TV debates. Most papers have given the party a death sentence, with the worst predictions claiming a complete wipe-out of the party in 2015. There won’t be a complete wipe-out, but a 20 seat loss is likely. Therefore the conference needed to restore faith in the party’s activists. It did just that.

Conference is the one time of year when leaders can talk directly to the nation, hence why so much is riding on the back of keynote speeches. Nick has always been a good speaker, he engages well with audiences and easily connects with anyone he talks to. In 2013 he was back to the speaker we knew he could be, just as he was in 2010. I’m harping back to 2010 again, but following the first TV debate Clegg was 20 points ahead of Cameron and Brown in the polls. He engaged with the public in a way no Lib Dem leader has done in many years. 

“We’re close to the death of the single party system” Nick said to an enthusiastic crowd. We’ve had three years of coalition government, so why not an extra five after 2015. The Lib Dems have been a moderating force in government, stopping the Tories from leaving the centre ground, and Nick Clegg made sure the nation knew it. The Lib Dems have not just been a political anchor however; our policies- such as backing austerity- have ensured that Britain is returning to a sound economic footing.

“We’re a party of government, not a party of protest.” For years the Lib Dems have been seen as the protest vote, ‘not happy with the Tories or Labour? Vote Lib Dem!’ was the common perception. After not being in government for 70 years it’s very difficult to change the opinions of generations of voters. You can’t make people believe we’re a serious party of government in just three years, but you can make a good start on changing opinions and that’s what the party has been doing. With serious policy announcements and by helping to rescue the country’s economy Lib Dems in government have proved that you shouldn’t just vote for us in protest, but vote for us because we are a credible party that can make a difference in government.

So, overall the Lib Dem conference was a success; we had policy announcements, Tory bashing, and proving we’re a credible party of government. Clegg asserted his leadership of the party and Lib Dems are in a positive mood to take the fight to the next general election shouting the words ‘stronger economy, fairer society’.

By Joshua Godfrey

You will have nothing to lose but your chains

Ed Miliband has found himself in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons lately. The Daily Mail published a vicious attack on his late father Ralph Miliband, and the Mail on Sunday was forced to apologise for attempting to intrude on a private family occasion. Following the end of conference season, the political Right has made efforts to attack the Labour Party considerably, and I believe this represents a success for the Left.

These attacks show that the Right is frightened of the potential of a reinvigorated socialist force in Britain and has attempted to undermine it with mentions of Marxism and anti-nationalism. The articles published by the Daily Mail have not weakened support for Labour. Conversely, this is the ideological injection that the party required in order to survive.

At the Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband delivered a vision of Britain that his father would have been proud of. 

A vision of Britain where the global race – a race to more exploitation – is no longer the priority of Britain’s efforts.

A vision whereby workers are not just paid a minimum wage, but are paid a living wage in order to ease the cost of living crisis we currently face.

A vision whereby two warring classes are amalgamated in one nation.

As Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail correctly identified on Question Time last Thursday, Miliband’s speech had very deep Marxist foundations within it. On its own, such ideology would indeed be approached with caution by the majority of the British electorate. At the conference however, Miliband’s frontbench managed to present a policy-set that will work alongside this vision, thus appealing to the crucial ‘middle-England’ electorate.

Economically, the Labour Party is not in an advantageous position to promote the ideology it wishes. The economy currently serves as a vital issue to the electorate and, as my last article identified, this will serve as a barrier in becoming a whole-hearted socialist force. Nevertheless, the party continues to promote an idea of ‘responsible capitalism,’ thus attempting to reassure Britain that the crisis of 2008 would not be repeated again.

Furthermore, although ideological losses have been made on the economy, Labour has picked them up in other policy areas. Energy and climate change have seen increased scrutiny by the party. The Shadow Secretary for this area Caroline Flynt, has pledged to break up ‘the big six’ energy companies and their monopolisation of the market. It is their control over the power stations that has seen energy prices rise and market competition fall, and Labour wishes to end this. An inescapably popular idea across all ideologies. 

Furthermore, the creation of 1 million ‘Green Jobs’ has also been promised, addressing the importance of employment whilst tackling the more long-term issue of sustainable economics and politics to accompany it.

The involvement of migrant workers within Britain’s economy is also a very concerning issue for the electorate. Labour has now insisted that businesses that recruit abroad must create apprenticeships for Britain’s young people in exchange for those foreign workers. A policy that not only makes migrant recruitment more responsible, but also puts limits on domestic exploitation. 

One policy area that Labour has had free reign ideologically has been health. Public support for the NHS is high, but one cannot deny that it is falling apart at the seams. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham’s ‘whole person’ healthcare plan appears to be a good remedy. 

An integration of every aspect of care under one system would mean that patients are not left without the proper aftercare following treatment, and that older patients- that the NHS is not designed to accommodate- will be given the necessary care and dignity whilst treated. With references to Beveridge and Bevan, the NHS is a policy area that Labour wants to reinvigorate and call their own once more.

In my last article, my concerns surrounding how socialism may be blocked were evidenced through some of these policies. I still agree that the perceived necessity of a dominant global economy will hinder the development of socialism in Britain. But a socialist Britain is not popular to the electorate, and so the balancing act between policy and ideology is what will make Labour successful in 2015.

It has been attempted once before under New Labour, and the rise and imminent fall of the ‘Third Way’ demonstrated that such a balance is difficult. However, the sincerity behind Ed Miliband’s ideological stance is much greater than that of Tony Blair and this is what will make the difference to ‘One Nation’ Labour.

Ed Miliband’s vision of a socialist Britain, combined with the ‘responsible capitalist’ stance of his frontbench, delivers a Left-wing force of great worry to the Right. A force that will be very popular in its address of the crucial British issues.

The 2013 Labour Party conference presented a clear and effective message to the electorate: If you wish to see an end to exploitation, class divide and the ‘cost of living crisis,’ whilst maintaining focus on economic strength, you should vote Labour in 2015. 

After all, if Miliband’s vision maintains its course, you will have nothing to lose but your chains.

By Samuel Mercer

Core Conservatism

I knew that the conference season was finally behind us when #CPC13 stopped trending on Twitter, a mark of the society we live in perhaps. This however was a token touch of modernity in the Conservative Party conference, for this was a conference of tradition and core values. Indeed, I feel that all parties have been far more ideological and true to their core beliefs than before. None more so than the Labour Party.

Let’s be blunt, the Labour Party has changed. It has not updated itself, far from it, it has taken a few step backs. The party has developed a potent blend of socialism and populism, led by the aptly named Red Ed Miliband. I no longer laugh at the potential of a Labour majority in 2015 however- I fear it; I fear it for the sake of our country. I’d like to go through what was announced so as to explain why I fear it so.

Firstly, Labour’s proposed energy cap. It sounded so wonderful on paper, pitting the individual against the greedy energy companies was always going to go down well. However, then the reality of the situation hit- the value of energy shares tumbled- affecting the pensions of many ordinary workers. It was then roundly criticized by the energy companies and the government (not surprisingly), and then even by Lord Mandelson, the ex-Labour Business Secretary.  Even former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to give it support.

A discussion regarding the cost of living is an incredibly important argument to have, but it will not be fixed by socialist price controls. All it will do is force the energy companies to raise their prices dramatically before the freeze, and mean there will be less and less competition in the market. What kind of business is going to invest in a country with price controls? We may curse them, but the reality is that thousands of jobs rely on energy companies and they bring much needed investment to our country. 

Secondly, developers were warned that their land would be seized if they failed to build on it. The right to own land is surely one of our most basic; you can bet that if we did have a constitution the ownership of land would be right at the top of it. Government has no right to order companies to do something that is perfectly legal. They can change the law if they want, but to simply grab land is the kind of thing I’d expect from Zimbabwe or North Korea, not 21st-century Britain.

Thirdly, we have to be realistic and realise that at 16 and 17 a teenager’s mind is not made up politically, I can think of very few of my friends who would use their vote, and even less who would use it wisely! We have to remember that Labour’s plan to back votes at 16 been done for political reasons, not for any moral indignation that Ed Miliband might feel. Statistically young people are more inclined to vote Labour as they are generally more idealistic and less realistic. This is the same reason as to why the Scottish National Party has given them the vote, because they know that the young will support them without knowing all the facts. 

So, the Labour Party conference was that of ideology, an ideology I thought they had shed with Blair, but obviously not. On the BBC politics, delegates were asked to choose between socialism and capitalism- socialism was the clear winner- with Ed Balls making his choice especially clear (go see the YouTube clip!). The conference was summed up with one man who looked at the two lonely balls in the capitalism box and said ‘they must be Blairites, can’t be a lot of them round, they’ll soon leave’.

So, now that I’ve finished with Labour- I could go on but otherwise we’d be here all day- it’s now time to turn to the Conservatives. 

It will come of no surprise to anyone that I thought the Conservative Party conference 2013 (or #CPC13 if you want to feel young and trendy) was a well-rounded success.

The party went back to basics; instead of meaningless slogans on banners we simply got the achievements of the coalition, direct and to the point. Welfare Capped, Immigration Down, Deficit Cut by a third. Not empty slogans but plain, simple and to the point. This was a party conference of reality and government.

The reality was that the Conservatives are doing well, the list of achievements goes on and on from education to welfare, from immigration to the economy. I’m not going to bore you with the list but it’s definitely right that this is highlighted wouldn’t you say? And what better way to do that then putting it on huge billboards and broadcasting it to the world. 

The party went back to basics, to family values and to Britain’s values. And a tough love approach to the country. 

Firstly, there was the announcement of a withdrawal of benefits to the under 25s unless they are earning or learning. From the outset I’m sure many will see this as a return of the ‘nasty party’. I think it’s the return of common sense, tough love, and realism. Our welfare budget is simply too big and it must be tackled, and this way we make sure that no one is having something for nothing. 

Similarly on the policy front, it was announced that fuel duty would be frozen until the election, again to help people out who are feeling the squeeze. 

There were really no other major policy announcements in Cameron’s speech, just simply truth and honesty. The job is not done, nor will it be done by 2015- the government needs another five years to finish clearing up the mess made by Labour. (The phrase ‘finish the job’ was made 15 times just in case you forgot). 

The Conservatives stuck to their guns and their beliefs, they didn’t call to change the successful economic course. They didn’t reverse any of the spending cuts or welfare and education reforms. Why? Because they are working, and we are beginning to see the effects of them, we are beginning to see investment in this country pick up again and this great nation getting stronger once more. But conference acknowledged that ordinary people are feeling the pain and they’ve introduces realistic measures to help them. 

In 2015 voters will face a stark choice, that of Red Ed and his socialist policies that will cripple this country. Or the Conservatives, who promise an EU referendum, sweeping reforms, and, most importantly, putting money into people’s pockets. 

I’m proud to say that Cameron has the balls to do what must be done, to make the decisions that will ultimately do well for our country. The fact that he stuck to his message and didn’t subdue to cheap partisan politics makes him by far and away the strongest leader that we could have. 

By Robert Porter

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