In recent weeks, the three main British political parties – The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – each held their annual conference. These conferences have become increasingly media orientated, with key speeches aimed towards the wider electorate, rather than the assembled party faithful whose votes are more or less guaranteed for the next election. Gone are the days when fierce policy debates and major internal disagreements characterized party conferences: these carefully stage-managed modern PR exercises do not tolerate that type of public in-fighting.
But what were the highlights of the party conference season that many commentators have become increasingly disillusioned with? We examine each conference in turn, in order to interpret their most important events.
The Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the current coalition government, kicked off conference season in Birmingham. Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg re-affirmed his party’s commitment to the government’s deficit reduction plan. The task for the Liberal Democrat leadership was to justify their role in government that has seen their poll ratings plummet since the last General Election.
Clegg focused on Lib Dem policies such as the pupil premium and raising the income tax threshold, both designed to benefit people on low incomes in line with the mantra of promoting social mobility, as examples of his party’s positive influence within government. Other senior Lib Dems, including members of the Cabinet, framed their party’s role more in terms of ‘preventing the worst excesses of Tory government.’ Energy Secretary Chris Huhne compared the anti-EU Tory right to the Republican Tea Party Movement in the US. Business Secretary Vince Cable described some of his Conservative colleagues as “descendants of those who sent children up chimneys”!
After the Lib Dems, it was the turn of the Labour Party at their conference in Liverpool. Party leader Ed Miliband’s speech was an attack on the “predators” that operate within the short-sighted economic system of “fast-buck” capitalism. He said of his former New Labour government: “We changed the fabric of our country, but we did not do enough to change the values of our country.”
His speech will probably be best remembered for the booing that echoed around the hall when he mentioned the name of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Labour shadow cabinet, including deputy leader Harriet Harman, were quick to distance themselves from the discourtesy of the “tiny” minority that booed their party’s most successful leader.
Finally in Manchester it was the turn of the Conservative Party, the senior partner within the coalition government. Chancellor George Osbourne announced that the government intended to stick with its deficit reduction plan, despite the escalation of the crisis in the Eurozone. He however announced that the Bank of England was ready to inject £75 billion into the stagnant British economy: monetary, not fiscal, policy is the government’s preferred means of economic stimulus.
The Prime Minster David Cameron’s speech will perhaps be best remembered over confusion over whether he initially planned to instruct households to pay off their credit card debts. This is because his briefing to the press the night before did not match up to the speech he ended up delivering the next day.
However, an anecdote about a cat in the Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative party conference may have ended up overshadowing the headline speeches of both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. May cited her anecdote of ‘the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – I am not making this up – he had a pet cat’ as evidence for why she wants to repeal the Human Rights Act. However, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was not too impressed by her tale, remarking that: ‘I cannot believe anybody has ever had deportation refused on the basis of owning a cat.’
The subsequent controversy dubbed ‘Cat-gate’ strikes at the heart of what senior Lib Dems strongly affirmed at their party conference: under their watch they will not allow Human Rights Act to be repealed. We will have to wait to see how this issue will develop and whether it will remain a point of contention within the Coalition Government. The fact that a cat was able to overshadow party conference season may also illustrate the lack of serious policy setting debate at the modern UK party conference.
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