The Political Party Conferences 2016
The Labour Party will open their conference in Liverpool on Sunday 25 September, the day after the result of the leadership election has been announced. Jeremy Corbyn is widely expected to win re-election by a comfortable margin. But the result will bring no respite in Labour’s bitter factional wars. Only a few weeks ago, eight out of ten Labour MPs voted no confidence in Mr Corbyn’s leadership, and many went public with detailed, stinging critiques of his performance in the job. During the leadership campaign that followed, Mr Corbyn’s allies have been every bit as vociferous in response. What has been said by both sides cannot be forgotten or retracted, leaving the party with divisions that seem intractable.
There is still no sign, however, that Labour is about to split into two parties. The “moderates” have no desire to leave Labour’s heritage or its brand to the hard left. They also appreciate the uphill struggle that any new political force would face under the first-past-the-post voting system used to elect MPs.
With the leadership election out of the way and both sides staying put, the conference will focus on Labour’s internal politics, rather than attacking the government or showcasing innovative new policies. Mr Corbyn and his hard left supporters will move to tighten their grip on the party. They will move to force out the moderate-leaning General Secretary, Ian McNicol. There is sure to be a lot of angst about the boundary review, which will do away with as many as 25 Labour-held seats, including Mr Corbyn’s own constituency in Islington North, leaving sitting MPs scrambling for seats in the months ahead. And the boundary changes will give the hard left an opening to start choosing Labour-leaning seats for new candidates who are, in the words of one new member of the party’s National Executive Committee, “more in tune with ordinary members”.
The Conservative Party Conference, to be held in Birmingham from Sunday 2 to Wednesday 5 October, should be an altogether happier affair. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is still enjoying her polling honeymoon. Voters rate her performance much more highly than Jeremy Corbyn’s and the Conservatives are fortified by double digit leads over Labour in all the major opinion polls. And many grassroots Conservatives will arrive in Birmingham still basking in the result of the EU Referendum – and at the departure from Government of David Cameron and George Osborne.
Mrs May will use the Conference to emphasise that she leads a Conservative administration with a different “look and feel” to David Cameron’s: more serious and more professional, less interested in media stunts and political games -- and not run by “flashy” metropolitan liberals.
The Prime Minister will also try to demonstrate that she has her own political agenda and to set out what, in specific terms, her Government will seek to achieve.
When she arrived at Number Ten, Mrs May promised “a country that works for everyone”, and this will be the slogan for the Conference. The Prime Minister’s pledge to widen opportunities across society and to govern “not for a privileged few but for every one of us” will be reinforced with announcements of new initiatives in major domestic departments. The promise to end the ban on new grammar schools, announced last week, was originally intended to have been one of the new policies. Ministers will now be under pressure to come up with attractive new policies in areas like infrastructure, industrial policy and housing.
Theresa May’s gambit will work, at least in the short term. But a spectre will hover over Birmingham. Even if Conference managers keep the attention away from Europe, leading Conservatives know that her Government will stand or fall on whether or not her promise of “Brexit means Brexit” is kept. Some Conservatives are already wondering out loud whether the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, are up to their jobs.
UKIP’s conference saw the election of a new leader, Diane James, who represents the south east of England in the European Parliament. During the conference, one of Nigel Farage’s closest aides claimed that some members were leaving to join the Conservative Party. The SNP, meanwhile, are gearing up for their conference from 13-15 October 2016.
The Liberal Democrats’ conference kicked off on Saturday 17 September in Brighton. Even though the party crashed from 57 seats to just 8 at the last General Election, and struggles to make any impact, members will not be too gloomy. Last May’s elections for English local councils and the Scottish Parliament saw a modest recovery in Liberal Democrat fortunes and party membership now stands at more than 70,000, the highest number in a decade.
The next challenge for Tim Farron, the party’s leader, will be showing how he plans to make the Liberal Democrats relevant again. Members are relieved that their party is still alive, but they also know it is still flatlining at 8 per cent in the opinion polls, despite all of Labour’s problems.
Mr Farron’s response is two-fold. First, he keeps inviting disenchanted moderate Labour MPs to defect to the Liberal Democrats. So far, none have taken up the offer, but that may change in time, especially if some Labour MPs are shown the door by their constituency parties. In the meantime, his message to disgruntled Labour voters is clear: come to us. Second, Mr Farron wants to carve out distinctive policies and issues that will go down well in seats that his party can win. The main totemic issue that he has seized on is Europe. The referendum result on 23 June came as a body blow to the Liberal Democrats, for Britain’s destiny in Europe is one of their most cherished beliefs. Yet party strategists see “the 48 per cent” who voted to remain as a big political opportunity, especially as Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seems indifferent to the whole European project. They may have a point. Almost as soon as the referendum votes were counted, Mr Farron announced that the Liberal Democrats would campaign to keep Britain in the EU. Since he made that pledge, more than 16,000 new members have signed up, an increase of around 35 per cent. On Monday, the conference reviewed a “Lib Dem Plan for Britain in Europe”, which calls for a referendum on the final Brexit deal and reiterates their commitment to staying in the EU. In the meantime, their proposed settlement would guarantee both Britain’s membership of the single market and free movement, as well as continued consumer, employment and environmental protection and co-operation with the EU on law enforcement. The party may face some tough questions over how the plan would work in practice, and some members will want the Liberal Democrats to commit to rejoining the EU, assuming Brexit happens. Yet Tim Farron and his colleagues will leave Brighton confident that they have a USP. Still, many Liberal Democrats will want to see Mr Farron showcase clear policies on more popular concerns and to provide a clearer sense of political direction in his keynote speech on Tuesday. An obvious example is education, and he has already signalled his intention to campaign hard against Theresa May’s plan to permit new grammar schools. Others that members may have in mind are the NHS and low wages. But the conference is likely to see a row over welfare reform, with the Social Liberal Forum, the main pressure group on the party’s left, pressing for a commitment to end benefit sanctions.
Otherwise, Mr Farron and his supporters know that they have no magic wands at their disposal. Ever since they tanked at the last General Election, more experienced Liberal Democrats have understood that they will rebuild by starting with their base in local government, rather than by trying to wow the national media. The party has taken a lot of encouragement from strong showings in Council by-election results over the summer, with some hefty swings achieved against Labour during September. But many Liberal Democrats in Brighton will say that what they could really do with now is a by-election in a Parliamentary constituency that the party can win.
About the Author: Neil Stockley, Lodestone Associate
Neil Stockley is a communications and policy strategist with more than thirty years’ experience in public affairs and politics, in the UK and New Zealand. He ensures that organisations achieve their business objectives by developing robust policy positions and turning complex research into compelling stories and accessible materials for external audiences. Over nearly two decades, Neil has built up significant expertise in energy, climate change and environment policy. He has provided public affairs and communications counsel to National Grid, offshore wind and waste-to-energy generators, solar operators, one of the “big six” energy companies, a challenger energy brand, a renewable energy merchant bank, distribution network operators and trade associations across the energy sector. In 2011-12, he worked for Arqiva, developing and implementing a political communications strategy to support the company’s smart meter activity. Neil has also worked with companies in the water and technology sectors and advised a public transport campaign on policy and strategy. He is an experienced speechwriter and editor of policy papers, submissions and publications. Neil is a former Policy Director for the Liberal Democrats and has twice chaired the party’s policy working groups on climate change. He was executive assistant to former New Zealand Prime Minister, David Lange.