A week is a long time in politics. Indeed, less than two weeks ago David Cameron was breathing a sigh of relief as Scotland voted to stay in the Union; a vote that could have spelled disaster for the Prime Minister and his party had Alex Salmond’s Yes campaign succeeded in smashing the Westminster consensus. Yet, on the first day of the Conservative party conference, the headlines could not have been worse for Mr Cameron.
‘Tory Crisis’ headlined the Sunday papers, following the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP, and the added strain of former Civil Society minister Brooks Newmark resigning after it was revealed that he had sent explicit pictures of himself over the internet. Whilst the latter is hardly a crisis that the Prime Minister and his aides will necessarily need to tackle, the former is. Mark Reckless is the second Conservative MP to defect to UKIP following Douglas Carswell, who made the move last month, and looks set to win the upcoming by-election in Clacton. Like it or not, UKIP are posing a threat to both the Conservatives and Labour, a threat that cannot be ignored in the lead up to May 2015. Journalists in Birmingham covering the Conservative Party Conference are now playing a game of ‘spot the next defector’, rather than focusing on Conservative policy, which should be the prime focus.
It’s fair to say that Labour has not had an easy time of late either. Ed Miliband’s speech at his party’s conference last week hoped to win over the electorate, proving that he is capable of handling the keys to No10. This was his chance to reveal how a Labour government would manage the economy and tackle the issues that have resulted from the rise in austerity. However, Miliband failed to mention the deficit in his leaders’ speech, focusing instead on his encounters with ordinary voters who he believes will benefit from a future Labour government. Big mistake. For a party on the cusp of power, to present a party conference lacking the buzz of optimism just months before a General Election was a huge error of judgment. In 1996, the Labour Conference, a year before their landslide victory in 1997, was ringing with confidence – anything was possible. Sadly, such enthusiasm was absent this year, and Labour may well pay the price in the coming months.
On the other half of the coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister has had his own problems in recent months. After surviving a leadership coup plotted by former Liberal Democrat peer Matthew Oakeshott, Nick Clegg has since had to deal with Lord Rennard’s refusal to apologise over multiple allegations of sexual harassment from female members of his party. Although action against Mr Rennard has been dropped, Clegg has admitted that the party has taken a “long hard look in the mirror” concerning these issues. However, former Lib Dem activist, Susan Gasczak, has since commented that Clegg faces a “bigger problem” regarding women. These wounds to the Lib Dems accompany much more damaging ones that have resulted from the scars of five years in government with the Tories, not least due to the party’s U-turn on tuition fees; a broken promise still raw amongst many voters.
And then there is UKIP. Party leader Nigel Farage is still celebrating from their recent success in the polls. Whilst some have despaired with the attitude within mainstream politics, many traditional voters have tuned to Farage as he cunningly presents himself as an ordinary bloke who began his career away from the political spotlight. He claims not to be a career politician (although one may not think so with his sights set on Westminster), and preaches to the public to join his army in order to get out of Europe and overthrow the establishment. Right or wrong, he plays politics spectacularly well and indeed it appears to be working. However, whether UKIP's recent surge is simply a protest vote remains to be seen. Without a clear manifesto and only two memorable policies (immigration and Europe) to their name, it is debatable how well they can do in May 2015. That said UKIP's ‘political earthquake’ has rocked politics, forcing the electorate to question their traditional belief in the mainstream parties. With Tory defections adding to their limelight, the UKIP threat could go further still.
With just eight months to go before the General Election, all mainstream parties have concerns that need to be addressed. However, they also have the opportunity to unveil renewed manifestos in order to convince the electorate that they are the party best suited for government. With the economy recovering as a result of the Conservative’s “long-term economic plan”, Labour cannot fight the cost of living argument like they once could. The Lib Dems need to decide where they stand on current coalition policy, and where they would differ if they were to enter government once again. Whilst any party leader will jump at the chance to gain media coverage over the next eight months, each party needs to recognise that such appearances are irrelevant without the backing of concise policy. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems currently lack an element of this within their current identities; party policy will need to be clear in order to convince the public that they have the potential to govern for the next five years.
By Emily Stacey