Political party conferences: A look ahead

As the party conferences get underway this weekend three experienced analysts share their thoughts on what we might expect to hear at the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative conferences, and the challenges facing each party.

Michael Kenny on the Liberal Democrats:


The biggest challenge facing the Lib Dems’ newly elected leader, Tim Farron, when he rises to speak at the party’s conference, is to say something that gets heard outside the hall he is addressing. Since their election catastrophe in May, the Lib Dems have quietly disappeared from the face of the political landscape. Farron’s arrival has been drowned out by the dramatic turn taken by the Labour party’s leadership contest, and the minor earthquake generated by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory.

The road ahead for Farron and his party is a daunting one. His short-medium term challenge is twofold.

First, he needs to get a foothold in the wider political conversation and show that he gets the need to redefine the party in the public consciousness. This is vital if the Lib Dems are to become competitive again at the local level. One of the underplayed aspects of its coalition catastrophe was the decimation of its local councillor base, as well as the diminution of its fabled capacity to hold the position of incumbent MPs.

Corbyn’s election presents both a threat and an opportunity in this regard. Farron’s default political instinct may be to tear into the Tories and protest against massive further public spending reductions and other parts of the government’s agenda. But this is now the territory on which Labour will camp, and it will be hard for him to get much of a hearing. He would do better to craft a more balanced narrative that interweaves these themes with an appeal to the many who still relate, in different ways, to the political centre, and who are likely to find the polarisation of British politics alienating. To succeed, he is going to have to talk on themes – such as the need to reform the public services and the UK’s productivity crisis — which do not, one suspects, come naturally to him, as well as those – like civil liberties and localism – which probably do.

Second, he needs to relocate his party’s ideological sweet-spot and position the Lib Dems as the one remaining force in British politics that speaks for a broadly-based liberal tradition that has long been part of the DNA of British party politics, but which finds itself battered and bruised, and increasingly on the defensive in the public culture. Liberalism is in a perilous position in British politics and political culture, and Farron needs to define himself as an eager, but realistic and non-metropolitan, exponent of its values.

But while its position in politics is much diminished, there are reasons to think that the longer term prospects for liberalism are favourable and its political potential still considerable. Now they are out of the Whitehall bunker, he and his party would do well to look more carefully at the social landscape of the extraordinary diverse country that rejected them, and to contemplate the opportunities and openings for a liberal ethos associated with the technological, cultural and social revolutions of our times.

Intellectual ballast, socially rooted optimism, political savvy… and a few decent jokes; all need an airing in his first speech as leader.

Michael Kenny is Director of the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book, The Politics of English Nationhood, will be available in paperback in early 2016.

Tim Bale on the Labour Party:


Ever since the BBC’s and LSE’s Bob McKenzie published his seminal work on British political parties back in 1955, we’ve known that Labour isn’t quite as democratic as it looks. Its leader, and those around him, has rather more say over the direction the party takes than implied by a constitution that stresses the sanctity and ultimate sovereignty of Conference.

For all that, it’s hard to imagine that Jeremy Corbyn, elected as Labour’s new leader only a fortnight before the party meets in Brighton, is going to be able to use the occasion to secure a virtually overnight change in its economic policies – even if, as may well be the case, many of the grassroots resolutions debated beside the seaside will actually chime pretty well with his way of thinking.

That said, Corbyn – supported by his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell – is bound to want to lay down a marker or two, not least to signal to all those who supported his successful bid for the top job that he really does intend to break from the supposedly ‘neoliberal’ policies that Tony Blair (‘Boo! Hiss!’) and Gordon Brown slavishly followed during their time in charge.

Most immediately, ‘New Old Labour’, as we may as well call it, will be nailing its anti-austerity colours to the mast by condemning just about every cut and cap proposed by the government, especially in the welfare field. Whether or not this is right in economic terms – and there is a good argument to be made that it is, given the negative impact on demand and the so-far patchy evidence on incentives to employment – this will of course place the party exactly where George Osborne wants it, namely on the wrong side of public opinion and prejudice.

Of course, Corbyn will focus in particular on those Tory welfare measures that many voters are uneasy about – most obviously, the bedroom tax and anything hurting disabled people. He will focus, too, on suggestions they may support – a higher minimum wage, rent controls, cutting private sector involvement in healthcare, reform of university fees, tougher regulation of the banking sector and energy markets. He will also flirt with renationalisation of the railways and talk about rebalancing the economy back toward manufacturing (the latter apparently being morally superior to services). And he’ll suggest that the public finances can be brought back into balance, not by raising taxes on the majority, but by cracking down harder on those at the top, as well as on corporate and individual tax avoidance and evasion.

The trouble is: Ed Miliband did all that, and look how far that got him.

The only really novel ideas canvassed so far by Team Jezza are (i) the suggestion that a new National Investment Bank be created to fund infrastructure projects using debt created by the Bank of England and (ii) some sort of ‘maximum wage’.

Quite why ‘People’s QE’ makes more sense than the government itself borrowing to do the self-same thing while interest rates remain at or near zero isn’t altogether clear. Nor is how any administration concerned about attracting investment and talent into the UK would go about preventing companies paying the going rate.

Cynics will argue, of course, that none of this matters. After all, Corbyn is never going to be PM. It may be worth remembering, however, that they said the same about his becoming leader of the Labour Party. Careful what you don’t wish for….

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. His latest book, Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband, was published in June 2015.

Andrew Gamble on the Conservative Party:

Andrew GambleThis year’s Conservative conference will first of all be a celebration of the party’s unexpected victory in the May General Election, the first time the Conservatives have won a parliamentary majority since 1992. One of the foundations of that victory was the success of the Conservative narrative contrasting Labour overspending and recklessness with Conservative prudence and responsibility. At their conference the Conservatives will repeat the main themes of that narrative of the crisis, the importance of paying down the deficit and achieving a surplus on the public finances. At the same time in order to win the election the Conservatives made promises designed to win the support of every section of the electorate, and progress towards the implementation of some of these promises will be highlighted at the conference. It will be interesting to note those promises which receive no mention at the conference, which may indicate that the Government has begun to have second thoughts about them. It was not expecting that it would have to implement many of them.

Speeches by Government Ministers, particularly the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, will be scrutinised for the hints they contain as to where the burden of cuts will fall. Having protected so many areas (Defence being the latest to be added to the list) the cuts in remaining departments, particularly Business, Transport and Local Government will have to be draconian, unless the government decides to use the current buoyancy of fiscal revenues to soften them. George Osborne already signalled an easing of the cuts in his budget after the election, but the Government’s strategy of achieving a surplus and then delivering significant tax cuts before the next election in 2020 remains in place. This strategy is dependent on the economy continuing to grow at 2 per cent per annum throughout this Parliament, and is highly vulnerable to external shocks such as the current slowdown in the Chinese economy. The government may want to get its excuses for failing to meet its targets in early. It cannot go on blaming the last Labour government for ever.

Ministers are likely to say as little as they can about immigration (since it has just spectacularly missed its own target) or about the government’s EU renegotiations, both of which cast long shadows, and excite great passions within the party. They will say more about their ambitions for the Northern Powerhouse, and for making the Conservatives the party of working people. Labour’s move to the left following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader will be depicted as threatening the financial security of every family in Britain. The clear blue water dividing the parties on welfare, public ownership, the deficit, public investment, tuition fees, new trade union laws, and taxation will be emphasised. In this way the Conservatives will seek to frame the argument on economic competence and trust for the next five years, casting Labour as both incompetent and dangerous.

Andrew Gamble is a Professorial Fellow at SPERI and author of many distinguished books on political economy, including The Conservative Nation, Politics and Fate, and The Spectre at the Feast. His latest book is Crisis without End? The Unravelling of Western Prosperity.