The Sunday review: conference season

by Anthony Painter

The two main parties have raised their game. Admittedly, this wasn’t difficult after last year but it is the case nonetheless. Conference season 2012 has defined the 2015 fight and was, unusually, consequential. The Liberal Democrats sunk without a trace. We now have a traditional fight between a party of enterprise and individualism and a party of the people taking on unjust elites. There is real choice in politics again.

On their own terms both Ed Miliband and David Cameron delivered very good speeches. The script for Labour’s conference was that its leader would deliver another vague, unfocused, holier-than-thou address. He didn’t. It had a clear and appealing message and it re-defined him as a political voice with an ability to cut through.

Equally, the script for the Conservative conference was that, having failed to establish a convincing economic recovery, the party would simply shift back into 2001/2005 mode. In fairness, the party did shunt right with all the old classics on abortion, the right to shoot at will, human rights and fantasies about workers being traded as if they were grains of wheat. Its leader did something different: he articulated a centre-right vision of the mainstream; one that is recognisable from the Thatcher years. It was full of many of the same bogeymen: intellectuals, teaching unions, the work-shy, and so on. But its aspiration nation message is a mainstream one nonetheless.

A predictable attack on the Cameron speech is the ideological one. That’s fine – I think their economic policy is a disaster too but it’s rather predictable for those on the left to attack the right so I’ll leave that to others. Instead, I’ll focus on the politics. But we can get too political. This is where the ‘Ed is setting the agenda and Cameron is just following’ argument comes in. These two men are competing to be prime minister after 2015 so of course they respond to each other. So what? Insider baseball.

Cameron didn’t so much attempt to re-claim the one nation tag as try to elbow Labour off that ground. His point – a fair one – is that Labour’s vision is less “one nation” than a confrontation between the popular version of the nation and its financial and business elites. Essentially, it is a mild left populism. And Cameron now has a mild right populism to contend with it. Neither party owns the centre-ground; they are competing to define it. Cameron is far too canny to follow the script of shunting right written for him by commentators on the left.

The problem with trying to claim that Cameron is lurching right is that you very quickly start to sound out of touch yourself. If you dismiss anxieties over welfare, immigration, the standard of education and sorting out the deficit as a “lurch right” you end up re-defining the mainstream in the right’s favour – people are concerned about all these issues. There is no doubt that the Conservative strategy is for Teresa May, Chris Grayling, Grant Shapps and George Osborne to cover this ground (Andrew Mitchell would have joined in had he not been in exile in his own city). Cameron himself then reaches to the centre with his UKIP right flank covered.

He ditched the progressive and big society variants of Conservatism. Sure, he deployed some of the rhetoric and symbols of these ideas but that was it. Meanwhile, Miliband claimed to be moving beyond New Labour while, in fact, he was resetting it to its early communitarian phase. It is worth reading Tony Blair’s 1994 conference speech to see some striking similarities. Just take this passage:

“Responsibility applies in the financial services… A society without responsibility is the enemy of the society built on merit and hard work. It creates an economy in which enterprise is just another word for the quick buck.”

2015 will be a definitive election. The common ground in British politics is very thin. Instead there is a battle of frames: mild left or mild right populism. The definitive characteristic of populism is that it is not particularly solution-oriented. That is why both speeches were light on policy detail.

The next election is also very difficult to predict. The received wisdom is that it would take a miracle for the Conservatives to win an overall majority. Before the 1992 general election similar predictions would have been made. The decline of the Liberal Democrat vote (to, say, 15%) means that we have an old-fashioned post-war election – albeit one where Labour has a structural advantage. The last of these was perhaps 1992 when the tide swung centre-right. And this time around, the final swing of the tide is likely to be the decisive one. The smart money is on another hung parliament but which will be the largest party is anyone’s guess.

What will swing it? The economy will be decisive of course. If growth does return in a convincing fashion then each of these speeches could look very different in two years’ time – or at least the arguments within them will do. Ed Miliband’s speech is seemingly more in touch with the moment. David Cameron’s seemed more detached from the moment (though early post-conference polls suggest that his speech has resonated). That is now. In two years’ time the moment could be very different. A narrative of “we turned the economy round, more jobs are out there, Britain is competitive again, its welfare is reformed, the deficit is receding, now the grafters, aspirers, strivers will get their deserved reward” sounds slightly off-key right now. In 2015? It could well be very different.

There are still clear weaknesses that each leader has to address. David Cameron has been surprisingly out of control as a prime minister – this year’s budget was particularly inept for which he has paid a price. The sense of a competence deficit could be a severe hamper to any argument for re-election. Ed Miliband has so far not shown himself prepared to take tough decisions on hard issues. Whatever happens between now and 2015 to the economy, the deficit, welfare reform, public service cuts and tax increases will very much still be part of the political debate.

If we are pretty much still where we are now economically in 2015, it is Miliband’s one nation vision that will be in tune. If things move on, the Cameron’s aspirational nation could seem more relevant. It is difficult to judge from this vantage point which of these speeches contains the winning political argument for Britain’s future. It is a real argument though. Both Miliband and Cameron have had good conferences. And now we’ll see who has best judged the flow of the national mood.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic

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6 Responses to “The Sunday review: conference season”

  1. Gracie says:

    You obviously watched two different parties at conference than I did. The Tory party conference was screaming panic, speaker after speaker had obviously been told to attack Ed Miliband, clearly demonstrating they feel panicked by him. The Tories all looked like a colony of rabbits who had accidentally strayed on the motorway, it was flat and boring and Cameron himself resorted to bashing the poor and vulnerable. Where is the early poll suggesting a conference bounce for the Tories? YouGov immediately after Cameron’s speech put Labour at 7 points down from an average of 10 point lead, well within the margin of error and no one can make the assumption you made on just two poll results. By the way today’s YouGov poll has Labour back into a 10 point double digit lead.

    The Labour conference by contrast was full of life, ideas and positiveness, the attack by the unions so yearned for by the right wing press and Tories failed to transpire. You mentioned Ed Miliband’s conference speech but ignored altogether that next day he gave a masterful Q&A session which was superb.

    You also fail to mention that Cameron came to conference attended Boris Johnson’s speech and made a real dick of himself by giving a standing ovation, we all know that was the last thing he would have wanted to do and you failed to say that Johnson completely ignored Cameron’s speech when he didn’t even bother turning up for it.

    As for judging the speeches, it’s just a few days after Cameron’s speech and no one can say what was in it (except die hard politicos) yet Ed Miliband’s speech is still being spoken about over a week after he made it and he didn’t have the advantage of going last thus being fresher in people’s memories, for the 2nd year running Miliband has done the impossible and got the public to remember him and his speech.

    You also say that Ed Miliband has failed to take tough decisions, what planet are you on? Or have you forgotten the time when the whole of the right wing press, media tore into him and joined in the “attack Ed at all costs for anything fest” because of his decision not to back the public workers strike? it would have been easy for him to back it, but he didn’t. What tough decisions have you in mind that he has not taken? If you are going to make comments like that you need to back them up!

    It’s Cameron that has repeatedly shown a lack of judgement who cannot take tough decisions especially when it comes down to sacking staff members who undoubtedly should lose their jobs. Cameron has been weak with appalling judgement, he has even caused fuel panic and been part of a disastrous budget that immediately fell to pieces. He should have fired Osborne but kept him. It’s not Miliband who cannot take tough decisions it’s Cameron!

  2. Amber Star says:

    Grant Shapps is still hoping the boundary changes will be passed by the commons next October. The Tories/ Dems are again signalling that they might consider a Coalition election strategy rather than going their separate ways. This, I believe, is the Tories desperately trying to get the LDs to vote for the boundary changes. They’ll likely renege immediately after the changes are passed just like they did with Lords reform but again it will be too late for the LDs to do much about it.

    So, it won’t be the economy which is the decider. It will be which way the LDs go vis-a-vis a separate or joint election strategy & whether or not they cave-in on the boundary changes.

  3. Robert says:

    This article is not a bad description of the three party conferences. I am wondering if since 2010 Cameron has been following a totally wrong strategy. His aim should have been an alliance with right-wing Lib Dems rather than an overall majority in 2015.

    It could be argued that the Conservative Party was an alliance of Tories and right-wing liberals from 1885 until the 1990s (Harold MacMillan said in the 1970s that the last purely Conservative government was from 1874 to 1880). Since the mid 1990s, the Conservative Party has been a purely conservative party, which is why it has failed to get more than 40% of the vote in recent General Elections. The coalition agreement in 2010 was an opportunity to revive an alliance that dominated British politics for about 100 years.

  4. postageincluded says:

    “What will swing it? The economy will be decisive of course.”

    Will it? That’s the conventional wisdom, but there were convincing signs of growth in 1997 and 1979 and it didn’t stop either Major or Callaghan losing and the economy was in recession in 1992 but Major won. I’ve never been convinced by the idea that if they get the numbers right the Tories are home and dry. Neither are they, which is why they’ve been planning ruses like boundary changes and electoral pacts with the LibDems, and probably something similar with Salmond.

  5. BenM says:

    “Ed Miliband has so far not shown himself prepared to take tough decisions on hard issues.”

    A so-called “tough” decision does not equal a correct one.

    Ironically of course, it was easy enough to ram the Austerity agenda through in this country once the Lib Dems had signed up to it.

    All the Tory papers and media talking heads were saying that was the course of action needed. It was sold, of course, as a “tough” decision for tough times.

    It was – calamitously – the wrong decision in the end.

    No one should buy the “tough” decision framing by Tory politicians. Because for Tories Austerity is not that tough a decision really. It is simple.

    Which is why the electorate needs a strong voice which exposes this Austerity snake oil for the nonsense that it is and has become.

  6. swatantra says:

    I’ll say it once again, you can’t be seriously a One Nation Party if ypou are seen to be in the pocket of the Unions. So EdM has some hard decisions to make in the next 2 years.
    But as has so often been said in the past, its personalities that win elections not so much the policies. And you haveomly to look at the US Presidentials to work that out. But my prediction is tat we ae in the era of Coalition Politicsand it’ll be a hung Parliament again for the next couple of GEs.

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