The 2010 election and its peculiar result lay in the background of all three conferences, and contributed to this season’s strange atmosphere – it was not directly addressed for the most part, but sitting there in the peripheral vision of the parties as they tried to deal with the radically new shape of post-election politics. The discussion about the election was probably the most mainstream and realistic at the Labour conference – there was I think a conscious effort not to forget how bad the result was through relief at escaping with 258 MPs. However, in terms of actual policy the discussions were more fruitful at the other two conferences.
Polling and opinion over the summer
The political context was uncertain, with high initial approval ratings for the government settling down over the summer to a more or less equal balance of satisfied and dissatisfied with the government’s record. In most opinion polling, Labour bounced back rapidly from the high 20s to the mid 30s (as soft left Lib Dems came straight back with the formation of the coalition) and consolidated a little below 40 per cent , fluctuating only slightly week by week. The Conservatives also gained support after the election, and seem to have a steady rating of around 40 per cent. The Liberal Democrats have suffered, their campaign polling ratings of around 30 per cent, and result of 23 per cent, sliding in stages down to the current norm of 12 per cent or so (in polling terms there is a methodological question – Lib Dem support seems to be rather higher than this in non-internet polling). In local authority by-elections, particularly the big elections in Exeter and Norwich, the pattern was of Labour making progress and the Lib Dems making surprisingly strong gains in some elections and humiliating wipe-outs in others.
The conference season did not change any of this, although both Labour and Conservative seem to have had a short lived ‘bounce’ in support from their conferences.
However, one must also note that the dominant discourse in politics, the media and more vaguely in general culture has shifted since the election; there has been a concerted process of ‘softening up’ public opinion for cuts, which seems to have been a successful operation. During the election, most voters favoured Labour’s gradual approach to deficit reduction (as did the Liberal Democrat party) but conventional wisdom has shifted a long way towards the Conservatives’ approach. Defining the agenda and the terms in which issues are discussed is even more important than winning any particular political debate, and this has probably been the most significant political development since the formation of the coalition.
This was a confusing and unsettling conference for the party: I would characterise the dominant mood as being ‘queasiness’ – uncertainty, apprehension, hope and distaste mixed together. It was the feeling of a passenger on a plane, doors locked, taxiing towards the runway of an airport in an obscure ex-Soviet state. They hope they will reach their destination, and think they probably will, but they are conscious of the risk that it might all go horribly wrong and are aware that one of the engines seems to be producing smoke.
Of all the parties, the inquest on the 2010 election was furthest from the surface, and it was only the most sophisticated election professional who had given it hard thought. The party’s campaigning model that worked well for years (‘Rennardism’) failed. The alternative that emerged during the 2010 election of going for broke on the basis of a strong national campaign (‘Cleggmania’) failed too.
In campaigning terms, the party might have been better off had the Conservatives managed to win; the Lib Dems could have concentrated their efforts on the project of displacing Labour as the principal alternative to the Conservatives. This was not where they ended up, and campaign strategy within the coalition is uncharted territory. Past precedent, in which electoral pacts facilitated the absorption of Liberals into the Conservative Party in the 1890s, 1920s, 1930s and almost in the 1950s, is not helpful. The prospect of the government appealing to the electorate in 2015 as a coalition with an electoral agreement between the parties has been floated, rather mischievously, by moderate Tories like Nick Boles and David Hunt, but it has more takers on the Tory side than among Lib Dems because I think at root it is about adding strength to the liberal wing of the Tory party rather than political pluralism.
Another reason for the – as far as I could tell – blanket rejection of an electoral pact was that many in the party are reconciled to the coalition as being, in Clegg’s terms set out in the conference speech, ‘the right government for right now’ – a conditional sort of phrasing that promises nothing beyond 2015. They are also keen to demonstrate that the politics of coalition can work, as it is an important part of their party’s value set. Talk of a lasting realignment of the centre right scares them.
But there was a tangible difference between the ministers and the others; one newspaper columnist perceptively referred to the Lib Dem conference as being ‘like a family reunion’ – an awkward occasion, shared with people with whom one has strong ties but from whom one has moved on. The leadership downplayed the extent to which the coalition really is a joint political enterprise, a new project rather than a temporary arrangement, for their conference.
Being in government with the Tories caused an understandable psychological counter-reaction at the conference, in which the Lib Dems anxiously demonstrated to each other that they remained culturally and by instinct, if not economically, left wing – by stressing their credentials on diversity, tolerance, science and so on, and their belief in elected local government rather than the voluntarism that features in Conservative thinking on ‘localism’. A particular demonstration of this need for leftist reassurance was Vince Cable’s speech in which he criticised capitalism, at least as practiced in the UK, for its short-termism and tendency to destroy competition, and declared that the government was certainly not ‘laissez-faire’. The language was different and sharper from what one would hear from a Conservative, or even Labour, minister, but the substance was the same in essentials – that Britain is basically a free market country but that the government has a role in regulating it and preventing pathologies of capitalism such as monopoly and cartels from developing. This speech, I was told, was cleared by 10 Downing Street; David Cameron seems happy and relaxed for a bit of posturing to take place for Lib Dem audiences to demonstrate that their party is not just a subordinate of the Conservatives. Cameron, perhaps because Conservative leaders have long been accustomed to ‘throwing them a bit of red meat’ (policies or phrases that sound right wing) for their own conference, seems to understand. This sort of thing (unlike perhaps the tuition fees disagreement) represents just a bit of theatre.
The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on their democratic internal culture, and this might be one of the slow casualties of the coalition government, just as internal Labour Party democracy withered as the party exercised power. The party voted by a large margin against the ‘free schools’ programme proposed by Michael Gove, but this will have no real effect on the government or its Liberal Democrat members.
The otherwise very forgettable Clegg leader’s speech had an extraordinary echo of Margaret Thatcher circa 1976, in that he compared the national finances to household finances, which although it has a certain ‘common sense’ appeal is so economically unsophisticated that he must have been using it for a purpose rather than expressing a sincere view (unless Clegg knows less about economics and history than I think he does). It reflects the way in which the Liberal Democrat party for the most part (a few exceptions such as Evan Harris and Charles Kennedy aside) accepted the Conservatives’ arguments and even emotions about the public finances with little reservation. That a leader of what until recently was a centre-left party could make such a rhetorical statement at its conference suggests that on many issues the Lib Dem party is very malleable. One on which it is not is tuition fees for students; this is an essential matter for many of their constituencies and activists and a distinctive political appeal for the party in the 2005 and 2010 elections. The lengths to which Clegg and others made it a pledge in 2010 to oppose raising fees will haunt them, and divide the party, more than anything that happened in Liverpool.
The Labour conference also took place in a strange mood. There were three major pieces of news to absorb, all of which had contradictory aspects.
1. The general election. Labour suffered a poor result, but it was better than seemed likely in 2009 or mid campaign, and to emerge with 258 MPs was at the top of expectations. There were two tendencies of thought – one to rather relax and hope that government unpopularity and the foundation left by the 2010 result would see the party soon return to power, and the other to remind each other that 29 per cent of the vote was awful and that the party had suffered particularly worrying losses among the English working and lower middle class. The second tendency I think prevailed; the mood was serious and despite the emotional temptations of the first tendency the extent of defeat was acknowledged.
2. The coalition. This has terminated a long period in which Labour’s attitude towards the Lib Dems has been dominated by two tendencies – to regard them as wary partners in a progressive political project, or as dangerous and devious opponents for the centre-left political territory. Neither is really sustainable, although some Labour figures have made an effort to keep lines open not just to former Lib Dem voters, but to Lib Dem politicians. In electing Ed rather than David, the party actually chose the candidate who is more interested in a dialogue aimed at reconstituting progressivism. Labour is liberated from the constraints of office, but isolated politically by opposition and not used to the irrelevance of that position.
3. Ed Miliband. EM was not the choice of MPs or individual party members who cast ballots, and this was apparent in the uncertain, slightly shocked and tentative mood on Saturday night and Sunday at the conference. The majority of people there will have probably favoured David Miliband over Ed, and it showed. There were a range of misgivings over the nature of Ed’s victory (that it was won in the trade union section, that it relied on second preference transfers from Ed Balls voters, and some questioned the propriety of standing against his brother). There were misgivings about Ed himself, particularly his lack of experience and the approach he had taken in the campaign which seemed to be ‘pandering’ to different sections of the party.
The leader’s speech avoided political knockabout, despite the usual role such theatre plays in cheering up the faithful at each of the three party conferences. There is nothing so guaranteed to raise a cheer at a Labour gathering or stir up fighting spirit than a scornful attack on Nick Clegg, but even in a speech where EM had a lot to do to unite and inspire Labour, he refrained from making one. Nor was he particularly personally aggressive about David Cameron. While at the time I found this surprising, on reflection it was a wise decision. EM had not just appealed to Liberal Democrat voters to go over to Labour (he may have calculated that most of the ones who ever would will have done so by now), but also left a door open to future co-operation with the party. Given the strong possibility that the next election will also fail to produce an overall majority, this was realistic.
EM also, by keeping the tone moderate and offering co-operation where there was agreement (including on some non-specified future cuts) wanted to keep the right side of the public mood that while highly uncertain and divided about what the government is doing, does at least respond to the weakening of tribalism that the coalition represents.
The most controversial part of the speech, inside and outside the party, was the repudiation of the Iraq invasion (and the sharp exchange between David Miliband and Harriet Harman it provoked). It was a difficult thing for most of those in government at the time to swallow, but the intention was not to re-fight an internal battle but to draw a line under the episode as far as the voters outside were concerned; without it, the process of re-engaging with the liberal elements lost over the war in 2003-05 would be much more difficult. As late as 1992, the Conservatives still found it worthwhile to feature the industrial disputes of 1979 on a party political broadcast, and although it was distasteful to the large proportion of the party who stayed with Blair over Iraq, EM’s statement reduced the chances that anger over Iraq would affect the Labour vote in 2015.
The leadership election results fractured the ‘Blairites’, who were already starting to split between what I would call the ‘ultras’ and the ‘moderates’. Some Blairites supported EM in the leadership campaign – people such as new MPs Rachel Reeves and Luciana Berger (and Simon Henig, leader of County Durham and therefore one of Labour’s most powerful executive politicians now), but most did line up behind DM. Since the election, the middle group has swung behind the leadership. The moderate Blairites like Alan Johnson, Liam Byrne, Tessa Jowell, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, Andy Burnham and Alastair Campbell take a pragmatic position; the leadership election is over, EM is leader, party unity is important, and there is something to be said for moving on and reassessing policy and strategy and taking part in the process.
The ‘ultra’ position (associated with Tim Allan, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Milburn and Byers; EM may have detached Caroline Flint from this tendency) is overtly or covertly in opposition to EM. During the conference there were anonymous briefings about EM ‘torching’ the foundations built by New Labour and going back to how things were previously, which seems to me to be an emotive rather than analytical statement. The clumsiness with which Blair and Mandelson intervened in the last week of the campaign was probably counterproductive to the candidate they supported.
The division of the Blairites reflects an eternal issue with internal reform projects like New Labour (or Gaitskellite revisionism in the 1950s, or Thatcherism). Is the core of the doctrine the ‘revisionist’ approach, which looks at current circumstances and tries to find a new set of techniques to achieve aims that may not change very much, or is it the policy formulation that was created at the start of the project? It seems obvious to me, as a political scientist (and, I should probably concede, a moderate Blairite) that the core is the revisionist approach. A philosophy such as ‘New Labour’ which emerged in 1994-95 is better understood as an approach rather than a set of doctrines from which ‘not one millimetre’ of deviation can be tolerated, and that anyone who claims to be ‘new’ or ‘modernising’ has to concede that 16 years of change, and the steady dissolution of the original electoral coalition, means that fresh thinking is required.
Blair’s intervention in the campaign was not a success, but there are still ultras who can make life difficult for EM in the party and also in the press – David Aaronovitch and John Rentoul were Blairite Iraq hawks who have morphed into EM critics, and have influential public platforms. A frontal attack is unlikely within the party, but there are people waiting for EM to fail and for an opportunity to open up to give David Miliband another shot at the leadership (I doubt whether David himself would directly encourage such thinking, though). EM is also isolated in terms of lacking a sympathetic media, in terms of gaining coverage and getting his ideas and approach taken seriously, possibly even more than Brown (although personalised hatred for EM is a rarer phenomenon than it was for Brown).
Labour’s conference tailed off at the end; the speech of the new leader on Tuesday afternoon was the focal point, and after the Tuesday evening all seemed a bit aimless. The party should think about shortening its conference now it is out of power anyway, but this year there was the particular issue that there were no policies to announce, and the people speaking on particular departmental areas would probably be moving on within a couple of weeks because of the new Shadow Cabinet, yet to be elected.
Parties at the conferences following election defeats first go into internal rethinking, analysing defeat and settling questions like who should be leader and what new approaches should be taken with image and organisation – in this the Labour conference in 2010 was a bit like the Tory conference in 2005. The next stage should be ‘listening mode’ as it was for the Tories in 2006, when ideas are encouraged to flourish and the party suspends judgement about accepting or rejecting them, and the year after should be about drawing together a policy agenda. To complain that Labour had no policies to offer in 2010 is rather missing the point of a conference at this stage in the cycle. Labour is starting to develop a politico-economic analysis, though, of the ‘squeezed middle’ (including some people reasonably high up the scale but pressured by the costs of children and housing), in terms of why the party lost so much support and as a framework to attack the government.
Ed Miliband having first surprised and unsettled the party by winning the leadership election, and then reassured it with his speech, there was simply not a lot left for anyone to say in Manchester. The Wednesday was dominated by speculation and discussion about the intentions of David Miliband, which in the end came down to a highly personal decision.
The important post-Manchester decision was the formation of the Shadow Cabinet, and this was also fairly well handled although the choice of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor was surprising. Johnson, although not a detail man, represents a gesture of unity to the Blairites (he was one of the first supporters of David’s leadership campaign) and also a slight shift to orthodox finance compared to appointing Balls or Cooper. That Johnson is not an economist is not very relevant (neither is Osborne), but some of the most successful Chancellors have been non-economists with a popular touch like Ken Clarke and Denis Healey. Economists-as-Chancellors tend to do spectacularly well for a time and then see it all go wrong, like Gordon Brown or Nigel Lawson. Johnson seems to have emerged with considerable power in the party (rather surprisingly), for instance having the ability to disagree early with EM over student finance. Johnson is also, like EM, rather on the reforming/ pluralist side of Labour politics, as opposed to the tribal/ centralist perspective shared by the old left and by a lot of New Labour.
EM’s concern for party unity and building a team also showed in his person management – it is unusual to do all the junior shadow appointments in person, but EM did, speaking to each shadow personally. If a criticism can be made of it, it lacks political decisiveness and aggression. There is a historical consciousness about EM’s leadership – he knows as well as anyone that party civil wars after defeats in 1951, 1970 and 1979 hindered the party’s recovery. To construct a ‘new generation’ he has chosen to start with one of the more careful exercises in faction-balancing we have seen since the early stages of the Blair government, at least at the top level – at the junior levels he has rewarded some of his early supporters.
The ‘Red Ed’ tag might have been dreamed up by New Labour ultras (possibly by Peter Mandelson in particular) but the Conservatives adopted it with enthusiasm and this will be something of a reputation to live down. It is, as EM said, rather a silly label. He and David are both mainstream social democrats and there is simply no relation to the leftist candidates who stood in leadership elections in the 1970s and 1980s (a read of Neil Kinnock’s leadership election manifesto in 1983, let alone Foot in 1980, should clarify that). But it is tempting, particularly given the role trade union votes played in his election (although these were votes of members, not the fabled ‘block votes’ or ‘barons’). EM’s first choices on this, in terms of appointing Johnson and also offering support in principle (in the leader’s speech) and specific (disability living allowance) spending cuts, are maybe even a little more cautious moves than David would have done.
The Conservative conference was not really what one would have expected for a party returning to power after a long period of opposition; it was the first since 1996 of the Tories as a governing party, and the first since 1991 probably where the party was reasonably united and confident in government. But there was a shadow over it all. The mood was if anything less happy than it was in 2009, when the party was confident about winning a majority and shadow ministers spoke with the expectation of soon wielding power. The ban on (public) consumption of champagne, in force since the mid-crisis conference in 2008, remained in force. In some ways, 2009 was the first Tory conference at which they started to think and act as a government, and 2010 less of a novelty for that reason.
The Tory conference was probably the most tentative and provisional of them all. Both the Liberal Democrats (by going into coalition in May) and Labour (by electing a new leader) had taken important decisions for the futures of their parties, while the Conservatives were in the limbo between the election and the proper start of the cuts process on 20 October.
Even though the Conservatives were oddly subdued, and the atmosphere was well away from the arrogance (or to put it less unkindly, the comfort with power) that they had as late as the mid 1990s, they were not disunited. There was not much factionalism in Birmingham, and the habit that had developed in the early Cameron conference of subtle shows of dissent through badge-wearing for non-approved causes like withdrawal from the EU had gone away.
One of the notable features of this government is that the European issue has not caused anywhere near the problems that might have been expected, with several technical and budgetary measures of EU integration being waved through in parliament. Part of this is a pragmatic recognition of what coalition means (although the Eurosceptic right was incapable of doing so in the interests of party unity from 1992 to around 2003). Part is less explicable; perhaps a non-rational sense of the right having been completely outflanked by Cameron in May and being too stunned to fight – or even accepting his redefinition of the political realities.
The issues on which the right wing were pushing the boundaries at Birmingham (a visit to the ‘Freedom Zone’ was interesting if one wanted to see some of the edgier organisations and fringe meetings) were less contradictory to the Cameron project. A right winger arguing for much more radically reduced taxation and government spending is, in a way, helping the government by pushing the terms of political debate so that the government’s pretty heavy cuts seem moderate by comparison. The causes that seemed to arouse the Tory grass roots seemed to be, in rough order, a smaller state, a No vote in the referendum on electoral reform, and restoring fox hunting. None of these enthusiasms will cause Cameron any lost sleep. At the more elevated level, the discussions on the fringe seemed to be an indirect dialogue between two policy entrepreneurs of the right, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Phillip Blond of ResPublica (the ‘Red Tory’). Both can work with the goal of reducing the size of the state in the medium term, although the emphasis is different – Elliott a more traditional individualist, economistic right winger and Blond a reversion to the 19th Century Toryism of intermediate institutions and a ‘Big Society’.
Cameron’s reputation as a speechmaker is based on one or two triumphs – his education speech at the 2005 conference, his 2007 conference speech and a couple of others, but he is also capable of turning in some less impressive efforts and his 2010 conference speech was one of them. Cameron’s evocation in the speech of Lord Kitchener (your country needs YOU) provoked a predictably flat reaction. Cameron himself – and to be fair to him, every politician at the moment in Britain – lacks the ability to inspire people to go beyond their expectations, a problem since his ‘Big Society’ if it is anything is a project to change people and their underlying attitudes.
The child benefit argument that broke out at the conference was a worrying sign for the Conservatives in several ways, and if repeated will revive concerns that did exist about George Osborne’s judgement and competence. On the face of it, withdrawing it from higher earners was not a bad idea – if one is looking for cuts, then targeting at the benefits that are currently universal and collected by higher earners helps with the idea that it is not just the poor making sacrifices.
The trouble with child benefit, and with a lot else that the government wants to cut, is that it is complicated. There is a reason that Peter Lilley (the very right wing Social Security Secretary in the 1990s) did not do anything about it. Independent taxation of married couples created the problem that taking it from high-earning mothers would actually be regressive, as women in most of the very rich households do not work, and the government’s idea turned out to create several paradoxes and be difficult and costly to administer. It really should have been better thought out by this stage.
The next problems were presentational. Having criticised – and often been accurate in doing so – the Blair administration’s habit of making up policy to satisfy short term media demands and doing so through an informal clique (‘sofa government’), the Conservatives now found themselves accused of doing just these things when Osborne trailed it on breakfast television. The policy also irritated mothers, who have emerged as quite a powerful political voice through the website ‘Mumsnet’ in particular, and caused misgivings among Tory representatives in Birmingham. The bottom end of the high rate tax threshold is well above the national average income, but particularly with the high costs of bringing up children it does not seem very affluent to many people on it, and the affirmation of the policy on the married tax allowance at more or less the same time meant it amounted to a transfer from working single parents to childless couples at only small net benefit to the Treasury.
Then the government hinted that there might be some flexibility and the possibility of changing the details. For a small cut (a little over £1bn) that affected people who did not really need the money all that much anyway, it did not give a strong and decisive impression of a government that would take tough decisions without buckling. It has not seemed to affect the public perceptions much, but this episode signalled a surprising vulnerability and inclarity. The Conservatives really only have themselves to blame for ‘losing’ the conference season.
Conclusion: Winners and losers
Ed Miliband of course had a better season than anyone expected, by winning and then making a better speech than he might have; however, he has to get beyond the problematic nature of his initial narrow victory, keep all but the ultra Blairites on board, keep a distance from the unions and work out a line that will stick on how Labour should decide which cuts should be supported and which opposed – a tough set of tasks. Nick Clegg also won – although his speech was forgettable, he did demonstrate leadership in getting his party to accept coalition and then to applaud a fairly pure statement of Thatcherism, although even now he might be encountering serious resistance on student fees. Liam Fox, through a judicious leaked memo, has been well placed to bolster his support on the traditionalist right of the party, and the darlings of the fringe were Douglas Carswell and Philip Blond.
George Osborne made the principal blunder of the conference season, although he has an opportunity to put it right again before long. The old barons of New Labour, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, found their political touch had deserted them, and Gordon Brown (a forgotten man by now…) was wiser to keep silent. David Miliband of course lost the leadership and, for the moment, does not have a political career, a fate which no other defeated leadership contender would have faced because of the (boring) media focus on the ‘psychodrama’ of brother against brother. Vince Cable’s star continued to burn out, with his sceptical speech badly received by business interests and whatever leftist credibility he had won vanished entirely with the student fees decision less than a month later…