Chelgate Public Affairs Newsletter – Party Conference Special
This week party conference season drew to a close and things have certainly been eventful. The Lib Dems managed to unintentionally provide a few laughs as new leader Vince Cable claimed he could be the next Prime Minister. At Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn cemented his grip on the party and is now looking stronger than ever.
And who could forget Theresa May’s disaster-ridden speech to Tory Party conference as even the stage began to fall apart? Chelgate Public Affairs brings you all the essential highlights from each of the party conferences this autumn.
Liberal Democrats – Misguided Optimism?
The Liberal Democrats were the first to gather for their annual party conference in Bournemouth. The party must at least be admired for their optimism, even if at times it may appear a little misguided. New leader Vince Cable took to the stage for his first major speech to the party since taking up his post and cemented the Liberal Democrats’ position as the ‘anti-Brexit party’.
The 74 year-old has insisted he could become the next Prime Minister despite his party only returning a dozen MPs at the last election and winning just 7.4% of the vote. He renewed the party’s support for a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership, promising an ‘exit from Brexit’.
Cable appealed to both Labour and Conservatives who are dismayed by the direction of their respective parties and pitched the Liberal Democrats as the party for those ‘looking for sensible, moderate, middle-ground politics’. His speech largely seems to have fallen on deaf ears however, as former leader Nick Clegg urging non-party members to join Labour to defeat Brexit just a few weeks later.
Cable’s rallying call was certainly upbeat as he tried to rejuvenate deflated activists as the party continues to flatline in opinion polls. Yet despite his best efforts it looks like the Liberal Democrats have a very large mountain to climb before they are able to form a government.
Labour – Momentum Rule the Roost
Labour activists were next to convene, descending on Brighton for one of the party’s largest ever conferences. The mood in leader Jeremy Corbyn’s camp was jubilant, celebrating the party’s better than expected performance in the snap General Election earlier in the year. Unite the Union General Secretary Len McCluskey even used his keynote address to conference to declare that Labour did win the election.
This year’s conference was rather different from previous affairs as backbench MPs who had once been allowed to sit directly in front of the stage were ordered to sit at the back of the room behind delegates from the trade unions and local parties. One party member from Bristol West even tried to block London Mayor Sadiq Khan from speaking. His efforts were ultimately in vain however and Labour’s most senior elected politician was eventually allowed to take to the stage.
Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage to address his supporters as they chanted his name. He announced a raft of left-wing policies including rent controls, the abolition of university tuition fees, a commitment to nationalising rail and public utilities, scrapping the public sector pay cap and moving to a system of ‘opt-out’ organ donation.
From an outsider’s perspective, the moderate and hard-left wings of the Labour Party appear to have settled their differences. However, scanning the room at various fringe events, it was painfully obvious that the two sides appear to have been avoiding each other during the all-important socials after motions had been debated on conference floor.
The only meeting of the opposing factions occurred after the final parties of conference ended, when a rather amusing exchange of back and forth chanting the names of the party leader and the general secretary broke out.
One thing is for certain – Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay as Labour Party leader and if an election were to be called tomorrow, it is not inconceivable that Corbyn would be granted the keys to No.10.
UKIP – Still Hanging On (Just)
UKIP held their annual conference in Torquay on 29-30 September but don’t worry if you missed it – it seems to have slipped under most people’s radar. Yet another leader was announced at the conference – this time it is the turn of former solider Henry Bolton.
Seen as the ‘moderate’ candidate, Bolton was regarded as the best of a bad bunch. UKIP MEPs were breathing a sigh of relief after Bolton was declared victorious in the ill-tempered contest – many of them had threatened to leave the party if far-right candidate Anne-Marie Waters was elected. The fourth UKIP leader in a year is relatively unknown even amongst his own party members but has been given the backing of Nigel Farage.
However, Bolton does not have much of a platform to build on as the party slipped from a third-place finish behind Labour in the 2015 General Election to winning just 1.8% of the vote in the snap 2017 General Election. Further humiliation came later that same month, with the party losing control of Thanet Council, the last remaining local authority the party had control of. UKIP is struggling to find a space in post-Brexit Britain with its policies seen as increasingly irrelevant. The perceived threat the party once posed in the Stoke Central by-election in February now seems like a lifetime ago.
Poor performance in the polls and a lack of purpose are not UKIP’s only problems. Delegates voted on a new party logo at conference however the process did not go as smoothly as planned as Twitter was quick to notice that the winning logo appears to have more than a passing resemblance to the one used by the Premier League. A copyright row is the last thing a party in such troubled waters needs.
Conservatives – Theresa’s Cougherence
The Conservative Party Conference saw Theresa May continue her run of bad luck. Underwhelmed delegates drifted around a nearly empty conference centre before piling into the conference hall on the final day to listen to their leader cough and splutter her way through her speech.
Highlights of the conference could not be found in the main centre where Ministers and delegates addressed a half empty hall. Instead the fringes were alive, with likely leadership contenders from Ruth Davidson to Jacob Rees-Mogg pulling in large crowds wherever they went.
It is only now that we are truly beginning to see the true extent of the damage Theresa May has inflicted on the Conservative Party. Nothing the Cabinet can do is right. With Brexit we are either ‘talking our country down’ or ‘destroying the country’s economy’. Policy announcements either do not go far enough to fixing our problems or are labelled ‘Labour Lite’.
True, Boris Johnson’s recent swipes at the Prime Minister will not have helped. But a Party that is so divided is simply unable to fix a country that is even more divided. Even now a group of MPs are looking for support in asking Theresa May to stand down. The PM’s future looks more uncertain than ever, just as Jeremy Corbyn’s future as Leader of the Labour Party is cemented.
So as delegates left Manchester behind them, they will have been wondering was her speech a metaphor for the state of the Conservative Party? Unable to speak, but determinedly struggling through whilst accepting a P45. You almost have to feel sorry for her. But politics is a ruthless game, and the sharks are always circling. She did after all, bring this on herself.
SNP – Style Over Substance?
Most political parties after a decade in power would start to sound stale and struggle to keep party members engaged. Not for the SNP. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon received several standing ovations during her keynote speech to party conference. Her delivery was slick, well-crafted jokes earned perfectly timed applause and journalists were hanging on to her every word.
Sturgeon opened with celebrating the SNP taking control of Glasgow City Council – a prize it has craved after decades of Labour administrations. She played to the party faithful by rattling off a series of achievements to sustained applause. The party losing almost half its MPs in June (including former leader Alex Salmond) was quietly swept under the carpet.
The headline policy announcement from SNP conference was a commitment to establish a publicly owned energy company by 2021 which was well received by party activists. Sturgeon also announced an ambitious policy of banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2032, a £6million Tourism Infrastructure Fund and the building of 50,000 more affordable homes in the current parliamentary session. Taking a tough line against local authorities reluctant to build, she warned that councils that do not use their full allocation of funding for new housing will see their money diverted to another local authority.
The party remains firmly anti-Trident and pro-independence, however Sturgeon did specify when she intends to hold a second Scottish independence referendum. Unlike Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon managed to captivate both the media and her audience with a raft of progressive policy announcements that have gone down well with party supporters and political commentators. What was not mentioned was how any of the policies are going to be paid for – but after a decade in government and with none of the opposition parties in Scotland posing any serious challenges, does that really matter?