A review of party conferences

Lewis Frain reviews the party conference season

Photo: Wikicommons

After the breakneck pace of politics in 2016/17 we’ve had a (quite welcome) drought recently. The Autumn party conferences however have brought several issues back to the forefront of the national conversation. So with that let’s delve into the major UK party conferences, with the exception of the SNP, who are meeting after the time of writing:

The Liberal Democrats kicked off conference season in mid-September with their gathering in Bournemouth. It served as Vince Cable’s first conference as leader.  The 74 year-old veteran has faced some questions over his age but his keynote speech presented an ambitious vision for the Lib Dems as “the government of the future.” Additionally, the new leader urged caution against the party being consumed by Brexit, ensuring they do not become seen as “UKIP in reverse.” Cable commanded authority during his speech and he certainly seems to be up for the fight, but the Lib Dems have a lot of work to do to maintain political influence. The snap election in June was an underwhelming one for the Lib Dems as they increased their MPs, dropped their vote share, and lost former leader Nick Clegg. This was followed by leader Tim Farron resigning his post for more personal reasons. The coalition years still seem to haunt the Lib Dems electorally and perhaps they could learn from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in presenting a clear alternative and positive vision for the country. Farron may have steadied the ship but Lib Dem supporters will be hoping that Cable can oversee a true revival.

The aim of the Labour conference in Brighton was clear: keep the engine running from June. The turnaround from Jeremy Corbyn during the election was remarkable but they did fail to win the election. There may still be gripes over how electable Corbyn’s Labour is but what’s clear is that the leader’s authority within his party has been further solidified.

Popular policies like re-nationalising several industries and abolishing tuition fees galvanised the youth vote and clearly presented Corbyn’s Labour as an alternative government. Corbyn claimed that Labour had moved the centre-ground in politics and even his harshest critics daren’t doubt it at this stage.

There were some divisions in the party over a lack of clear Brexit strategy as well as a rejected debate on the matter. Additionally, not a whole lot of new policies were proposed other than a cancellation of government PFI contracts should Labour be elected.  A lack of clarity over Brexit aside, it is clear the movement “For the many” that began in June is still riding high and whilst it continues, the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government is very real.

Whilst Corbyn’s leadership is more or less unquestioned, the same cannot be said for Prime Minister Theresa May. The disastrous result of the snap election would have ended most premierships but a lack of clear alternatives and looming Brexit talks meant despite George Osborne’s best wishes, here she stands.

Theresa May’s speech in Florence a couple of weeks ago was meant to break the deadlock in Brexit negotiations and this conference was meant to reaffirm her leadership and get the party back on track. However, a number of her own colleagues and allies seem set on undermining her.

Firstly, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox contradicted May and other ministers when stating any transitional arrangement with the EU would not involve single market access. In addition, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson issued a Telegraph article presenting his own vision for Brexit which many perceived as undermining to the Prime Minister and promoting his own leadership ambitions. Despite public denials from Johnson he followed this up with a similarly themed piece in The Sun. Michael Gove rather absurdly described the man he backstabbed in 2016 as the “Lionel Messi of politics.”. His skills may well be strong but the lack of loyalty, rather controversial swipes at young people’s patriotism, and insensitive comments about Libya would have cost most ministers their post. However, Johnson’s omnipresence implies that Theresa May lacks authority within her own cabinet and perhaps shows her days are indeed numbered.

Far too much has been made over May’s speech being interrupted by her struggling with a cough and prankster Lee Nelson but she did present plans for a new council housing initiative, a welcome step for most but opponents say it does not nearly go far enough. Overall, this conference achieved little but accentuate the clear divides within the Conservative party over Brexit and May’s position as leader. The Tories (though they will never admit it) are in relative disarray but will hope that by the next election, most likely in 2022, they will be in a far better position to combat Corbyn’s Labour. That largely depends on how Brexit goes.

Elsewhere, UKIP elected near unknown Henry Bolton as their new leader ahead of the more controversial Anne Marie Waters. They also revealed a new purple lion emblem which they will no doubt have to change again as it looks near identical to the Barclays Premier League logo. Their relevance is depleted but with doubts over how Brexit is going, we might be hearing more of them soon.

The pace of British politics may have slowed down and we may not get another snap election like some predicted but what’s clear is the next parliament will be defined by Brexit, the momentum of Corbyn’s Labour and the state of the Conservatives. These conferences merely got the ball rolling again.


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