This week marks the end of an arduous conference season. After a slow start with the Lib Dem conference, we were treated with Theresa May’s now infamous speech which lit up social media with the most extensive collection of political memes since the general election. For those of you who missed it, here’s a look back at the most important moments throughout.
Conservatives – coughing, housing and the Tory right
The Conservatives arrived in Manchester this week, hoping to steady the ship which had a Boris-shaped hole in its creaking hull. The Foreign Secretary managed to make himself the main story of both Labour and Conservative conferences, increasing already significant pressure on the PM.
Theresa May’s speech was incredible. Not one, not two, but three things that would have dominated the headlines for the next day all happened together. The prankster delivering a P45 from Boris Johnson – while commendably imaginative – also raised massive security concerns of how he was allowed to get so close.
The coughing was painful to watch – even the most anti-Tory activist must have been moved by the Tory standing-ovation to give their leader time to compose herself. Despite how much May has faced resentment for this summer’s general election, the Conservative party ultimately came out strong in support of their leader in her moment of vulnerability.
The Tories came into their conference having an issue with young voters and they left exactly the same. This provided an opportunity to give a comprehensive apology to young people for ignoring their needs over the last few years, and a comprehensive offer for how they can make it up to them. Instead there was a token offer on housing – building more homes, but not enough, and extending the problematic help-to-buy scheme (which in essence offers little help when young people are faced with having to put down such hefty housing deposits).
There was also a distinct lack of young Tories who would provide the future of the party – no fresh-faced William Hague or David Camerons. It seemed, instead, that those to the right of the party were tightening their grip. Most notably was the speech by Priti Patel, ticking all the boxes – commemorating Margaret Thatcher, dubbings Corbynites as ‘extremist’, and linking Corbyn to the IRA.
Labour – merch, Momentum and anti-Semitism
Labour’s conference seemed far more positive and upbeat than previous years, with an atmosphere of hope lifting the mood throughout. However, conference was not plain sailing. A different crowd was at conference this year – Momentum – and they are the ones who own the heart and soul of the modern Labour Party.
Among the merch-stalls selling Corbyn-themed shaving cream and the chants of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ activists rushed around clutching their smartphones. Many were using Momentum’s new app – a tool which provided Momentum members with updates on which votes to go to and how to vote. There was a strong feeling that Momentum were the new leaders of the Labour party, with the Blairite centrists no longer finding comfort in a party they once dominated.
This allowed for several issues to go around the conference largely unacknowledged – even blocking a debate on Labour’s Brexit policy. This meant that Labour continued its vague approach to any kind of Brexit policy. This fitted into the narrative of the rest of Labour’s policy announcements which were by and large just a reaffirmation of what was found in their manifesto.
There were aspects of the conference which Momentum could not control, most notably the Party’s issue with two key groups – Jews and women. The first issue was due to the distribution of anti-Semitic material at the conference and a fringe speaker who said “the freedom to criticise and to discuss every issue, whether it’s the Holocaust: yes or no.” However deep-rooted you believe the issue to be within the party, it is certainly not one which is going away soon.
In regards to Labour’s attitude to women, the BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg had to have a body guard for the Labour conference because of the abuse she received from Labour activists. ‘News’ websites such as The Canary have been fanning the flames of hatred against her because they believe her to be a Tory in disguise. Whist she may be more on the right of the Labour Party’s broad church, as are so many of the BBC political team, this issue is nothing new for the left. When Labour has brought in so many new voters who are unused to the usual tone of political discourse, there will be impassioned but misjudged comments. Yet harassing a female journalist is certainly never the correct way to air your grievances.
Lib Dems – pro-EU policy, legalising cannabis and gaining unwanted media attention
The Liberal Democrats have had a tough few years but the fight to remain relevant continues. Taking a lead from Labour, they have decided to engage young voters by appointing their own white old man, Vince Cable, as leader of the party. Perhaps because Jo Swinson, who would undoubtedly have a better chance of engaging the youth vote, would be wasted so far from a general election.
Video footage of Vince Cable winking was the latest of the Lib Dem’s odd media strategy – their thinking being ‘any media coverage is good media coverage.’ As a result several Lib Dem policies slipped under the radar – most notably, but least surprisingly, their opposition to Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats also reaffirmed their most ‘youth-friendly’ policy – legalising cannabis. In the general election this didn’t seem to pull young voters away from the Corbyn herd, but it remains to be seen whether in the future the allure of a fatty boom batty will trump free higher education.
UKIP- still exists
UKIP's National Conference happened in Torquay on September 29-30. The media’s silence in terms of covering this conference speaks volumes, highlighting the descent into irrelevance that has defined the political role of UKIP over the past twelve months.
That’s all for this year’s conference season. On the whole they have been non-events as indicators of policy and the future of the UK’s three main parties. With such deep divisions within the Conservative Party and Labour’s penchant for infighting, hopefully next year will provide better answers to what the future holds for the UK’s political landscape.
A Backbench report by Mason Boycott-Owen