In the era of fixed-term parliaments, this year’s conference season has all been a little, well, underwhelming. Three years before the next election a concrete manifesto isn’t yet required and the three main parties could, to some extent, take their figurative feet off the gas.
That said, some key themes did emerge, none more than the renewed power of the slogan. It’s easy to dismiss it as an empty gesture, yet the slogan remains big on political capital. It seems that 2012’s most valuable addition, “one nation”, is to be wrestled over for the foreseeable future by both the Conservatives and Labour as they bid to transform it from mere rhetoric by beefing it up with policy and sticking it centre stage.
Chancellor George Osborne was at pains to stress that the Conservatives’ vision of “one nation” Britain is patently different to Labour’s, crystallised in the section of his speech in which he extolled the so-called “strivers.” He used an analogy of a nightshift worker returning home in the small hours, while next door the blinds are drawn as the neighbour sleeps “off a life on benefits.”
It appears that “one nation” has replaced that other damp squib masquerading as a heavyweight, “big society” at the forefront of Tory ideology. And if the latter always seemed like a hard sell, the former puts the Conservatives on a direct collision course with Labour as Ed Miliband slowly steers his Labour ship towards a rebrand.
Labour’s own claims on “one nation” are tenuous at this early stage and as May 2015 nudges closer, Miliband will need to put meat on the policy, and that’s when conference season will really begin to capture the imagination. The Tories’ first line of attack is, as usual, to savage Labour’s economic record – a tactic that’s proven effective since the 2010 election. Miliband will have a fight on his hands to prove that he’s willing to balance the books and make the tough decisions while sating the party’s left.
While the sensible option for the three main parties so early in the electoral cycle was to remain relatively reticent on policy announcements, we were privy to brief glimpses of manifestos a-forming. Whereas Labour were keeping their cards somewhat close to their chests (at present, “one nation Labour” seems to focus almost exclusively on higher taxes for the rich), the coalition parties both have early signature policies.
The Liberal Democrats’ treasured mansion tax was once again touted – despite setting them on a collision course with their coalition partners. And the Tories have their “batter a burglar” law, as the Sun delightfully put it, which is one plank in a raft of policies designed to appease “white van” Britain, along with council tax freezes, curbs on benefit claimants and increasingly stringent laws on offenders.
The main conclusion to be drawn from this year’s season is that the main parties are busy chasing the same set of voters. The following three quotes could have been whiffled by any of the three leaders (in fact, these were spoken by, in order, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband):
“We are the party of the want-to-be-better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves, and we should never be ashamed of saying so.”
“Millions of people up and down the country, who, no matter how heroic or mundane their battles, keep going, keep trying, keep working, whatever life throws at them.”
“I want to talk to all of the people of this country who always thought of themselves as comfortably off, but who now find themselves struggling to make ends meet. They think the system just doesn’t work for them. I want to talk to them and all the millions of people across our country who don’t think they get a fair crack of the whip.”
The three main parties believe the election will be won and lost at the hands of the “squeezed middle”, “strivers” and “blue collar Tories.” The battle lines have been drawn, so expect populist policies to appeal to this cross section of society in next year’s conference season.
If conference season was a popularity contest (and, in many ways, it was), the biggest winner was Boris Johnson, with Nick Clegg, perhaps understandably, the fall guy once more. Clegg’s position is still precarious, although he seems thus-far immune to an aggressive takeover from within. Polling shows that the Lib Dems would enjoy a 5 per cent bounce if they adopted the affable Vince Cable as leader, which is perhaps surprising considering the furore in the not-so-distant past about former leader Sir Menzies Campbell’s age. Cable is 69, but Campbell was younger than that when he quit the party leadership after constant sniping over his advancing years.
Where Clegg has stuck to his guns, however, is an area that continues to appeal to his party’s grassroots. He stated: “My attitude has always been very simple, very straightforward, which is that as we have to make more savings as a country, as we do, you must start at the [top] and work your way down.”
And so to Boris. Treated like a superstar in Birmingham, Johnson is probably the most potent force in British politics at present. His speech avoided anything controversial (on the contrary, he was actually quite deferential to Cameron) and was sprinkled with his trademark wit and seeming off-the-cuff remarks (although his quips are said to be more choreographed than they might seem). By transcending party politics, Johnson is soaring in the popularity stakes. It shouldn’t only be Cameron looking over his shoulder towards City Hall then, but Labour too.