It is that time again, the moment in the political calendar when the denizens of Westminster emerge from their garrets and eyries, their bars and boltholes, and decamp for the airless auditoriums and sterile hotels of Brighton, Birmingham and Manchester.
Three weeks of long speeches and short motions, three weeks of gossip, intrigue and cliché. Repeat after me: it is the most important speech of the party leader’s life; he was speaking to the country not the party; the defeat on the conference floor is a devastating blow to his leadership. And so on and so on.
Party conferences are part of the rhythm of political life, the annual gathering of political party members known variously and archaically as the party faithful, rank and file and grassroots.
It is a chance for them to chastise their leaders and be inspired by them, to mix and mingle over cheap wine and stale sandwiches, but above all, to remind themselves of why they are what they are and do what they do, gaining succour from sharing time with like-minded folk who do not think it odd to go out canvassing on a wet Thursday night or spend hours licking envelopes in the often vain hope they may be making a difference.
And there is always the excitement of the leader’s speech, the danger of the fringe, and the occasional thrill of the votes.
So, of course, the future of the three largest parties depends more on the economy than on these conferences.
But the next three weeks will shed light on what they are all thinking and whether they are up for the fight.
The Liberal Democrats(FibDems)
Nick Clegg arrives in Brighton burdened with poor opinion poll figures, rates that are stubbornly lingering at around 10%.
He comes empty-handed, having abandoned his attempt to reform the House of Lords.
He brings with him echoing questions about his leadership as Vince Cable lets everyone know he is available, just in case. And he will be braced for noises off from one or two former ministers who feel they have lost their jobs somewhat arbitrarily.
So the Lib Dem leader’s first task will be to reassure party members that he is not going anywhere, that he is not some Tory patsy, and that the party he leads has a distinctive agenda.
So there will be lots of reminders that it was he who killed off David Cameron’s plans for pro-Tory boundary changes. There will be talk, too, of how the party is pushing hard for carbon pricing and wind farms and other green measures in the face of Tory resistance. And he will flag up, yet again, his support for a mansion tax and his opposition to further welfare cuts being demanded by George Osborne. So far, so distinctive.
But at the same time, Nick Clegg will also start trying to remake the case for the coalition.
He will emphasise, yes, the Lib Dems’ achievements in office – the millions of low paid people who have been taken out of tax, the pupil premium for deprived kids, the protection of civil liberties and so on.
But he will also argue that the coalition as a whole has achieved a lot too – the progress in cutting the deficit, the consistently low interest rates, the economic stability in contrast to much of Europe, the public sector reforms and so on.
He will deploy his ministers to hold “surgeries” outside the conference hall to reassure party members that it has all been worth it. His point will be that the Lib Dems have been disciplined under fire and proved themselves a responsible party of government.
To try to make this argument, Mr Clegg has apologised for breaking his promise not to raise tuition fees, a strategy he hopes will earn him a hearing from the public and perhaps forgiveness from some in his party.
But as ever, Mr Clegg does not make things easy for himself, using an interview in a party magazine to describe his conference as “weird”. There is, he says, “a real sense of a tribe coming together…some clad in yellow t-shirts and carrying their hemp bags”.
I know we in the media like to joke lazily about sandal-wearing Lib Dems but few expect their party leader to join in.
They are consistently ahead in the opinion polls, they appear to have won the right to be heard by the electorate, their opponents seem divided and unpopular, and pundits are beginning to contemplate the possibility of a Labour victory at the next election.
So expect a little more interest from lobbyists and businesses and pressure groups at Labour conference as they begin to assess whether the political wind may be changing.
But with more credibility comes more scrutiny. At this conference Ed Miliband will face pressure to set out not just what Labour stands for but what it might do in government.
What is he really going to do to try to fix the economy? What spending would he cut? How much more would he borrow? What is his thinking on reforming welfare, education, health and other public services? The answer to those questions is not at all clear and many in the party will be looking for something tangible to sell on the doorstep.
Talk to Mr Miliband’s aides, though, and they say there will be little detailed policy announced in Manchester. Instead, we will be given a greater sense of direction, more of “the country that Ed wants to lead and how Ed wants to lead it”. They see the calls for policy detail as a Tory trap, a hostage to fortune that would give their opponents years to trash or copy Labour ideas.
Labour will also – once again – try to showcase Mr Miliband.
They know his critics mock the way he looks and sounds. So they want to use this conference to reintroduce him to voters.
“The more people get to know Ed,” they claim, “the more they like him.” Unlike Mr Cameron, they note, Ed Miliband has only been leader for a couple of years. They don’t – and won’t – say this in public but they want to show how they believe Mr Miliband is maturing as a politician, hoping to place the thought in voters’ minds that the idea of Prime Minister Miliband is not a ludicrous fantasy.
So Mr Miliband will develop his broad themes of finding a different way of running the economy and how best to promote social democracy when there is no taxpayers’ cash to spend. But the test of his speech is clear: will more voters rate him as a leader? And will they have a better sense of what he might do?
The Conservatives(Nasty Party)
His MPs are restive and querulous, worried that economic growth remains stubbornly elusive, uncertain that the prime minister and the chancellor know where and how to find it.
The Parliamentary party is bruised after the recent reshuffle, the sacked and the passed-over joining with longstanding malcontents to mutter darkly about plots and leadership challenges if the gloom does not lift soon. Many Tories are beginning to assume that they will lose the next election and are planning accordingly.
So the prime minister’s task will be to stiffen sinews and gladden hearts, reassuring his party that there is a brighter tomorrow while warning that the new dawn might take a while to break.
He will insist that now is not the moment the change course, reminding his party of the difficult economic decisions Margaret Thatcher took in the early 1980s that were unpopular but subsequently considered to be right.
Ministers may say privately that there are positive signs emerging in the economy but Number Ten still echoes President Obama’s line of taking the “harder path that leads to a better place”. The message, aides say, will be that the government has taken some big long-term decisions and it will deliver on them.
At the same time, Mr Cameron and other ministers will give the party the hug they so desperately need, talking tough on crime, Europe, wind farms and spending.
But it will be a hug that won’t be so tight that it will upset their Lib Dem coalition colleagues. There will be a reminder of just what else the Tories and Lib Dems together have done to start reforming public services in health, welfare and education. And the PM will make a final grasp for a little Olympic after-glow when he invites Lord Coe onto the conference stage.
Mr Cameron’s theme for the week – “leadership in tough times” – is straightforward and obvious.
On the one hand, it is a message to doubters in his party that he is the man to lead the country to the promised land. On the other, it allows ministers to invite comparisons between Mr Cameron and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband.
Number Ten aides point to Mr Cameron’s respectable personal poll ratings that seem to suggest that while voters might have a downer on the Conservative Party, they still rate Mr Cameron above his Labour rival.
Expect one or two gentle reminders of what some Tories describe as Mr Miliband’s “oddness”, and an explicit attack on Labour in general. “They have had it too easy,” say Tory strategists. “They have got away with having no policies and that cannot go on.”
The big unknown, of course, is what Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – to give him the full name he so richly deserves – chooses to do.
The mayor of London is due to speak on the Tuesday of Tory conference, squeezed between George Osborne on Monday and Mr Cameron on Wednesday.
The party love him. They love his popularity and his ability to win elections. They love his talk of cutting taxes and taking on Europe, and ignore his social liberalism that is even more metropolitan than the prime minister’s.
MPs dismiss talk of a future Johnson leadership but few prime ministers like being upstaged by a potential rival. The official line is that the PM is not worried by tall poppies growing around him. But there are one or two close to him who would not mind reaching for a scyth
1) Labour needs to take on the lead on what the voters wants like they want a party that would stick up for them not just during the hard times but in the good years. Let’s not forget that New Labour has been replaced by New Generation and voters wants to know what is in it for them. Is more of the same or something different from the our party.
2) Over the summer it has been quite common for the left to rail against David Cameron and the Conservatives for being hypocrites. The Socialist, the newspaper of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) on June 22 headlined its front page Hypocrites! Tories Bash Benefits, Rich Let Off The Hook.
3) On August 29 it did the same with Con-Dems Win Gold For Hypocrisy! In similar terms, Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, declared on August 4 that the Tories had a gold medal for hypocrisy, and had earlier branded Cameron a hypocrite on June 30. Such headlines and the perspectives underlying them cast an interesting light on the issue of how people regard the Tories and what it says about their consciousness – or at least, how parts of the left thinks people see the Tories.
4) At first sight, nobody with any minimal critical perspective – let alone any sense of working-class or socialist consciousness – would have any problem with calling the Tories hypocrites. It seems a righteous way of expressing anger and disgust at what the Tories do, namely, to put the interests of a particular section of the population first and foremost. These people are, of course, those that own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange.
5) This group of people – and their hired helps of executives, senior managers and advisers – maybe comprise 5 per cent of the population in Britain. But just saying this shows what the rub is. To identify what the Tories do and who they do it for is not so much to unmask them as to just state that they do what it says on the tin. By contrast, the common definition of hypocrisy is to say one thing and knowingly do the opposite. Essentially, this means lying, cheating and deceiving.
6) So the Tories are not really hypocrites and it is doubtful if people really do believe them to be hypocrites. Rather, they are quite naked and venal in what they do and who they do it for. None of this is changed by Cameron’s attempt to make the Tories cuddly in the run-up to the 2010 general election nor his mantra – which has now been dropped – that in the age of austerity we are “all in it together.”
7) Indeed, there is wider perception that all politicians are only there to look after themselves. While this clashes with the idea that the Tories represent a certain stratum of society, it does nonetheless mean that politicians are seen as being naked and venal as well. Why then claim the Tories are hypocrites? And what does this say about the left?
8) The first thing would seem to be the notion of revealing the true nature of the Tories to people in some sort of epiphany or “eureka” moment. It’s almost as if, with the blinkers taken off, people will suddenly realise that they must then fight back together against the Tories. It’s almost as if there is nothing other than the lack of this realisation that holds people back.
9) But there are many factors that prevent a fightback from happening, not least people’s lack of collective confidence and lack of collective organisation. Collective confidence comes from collective struggle, and particularly successful struggle. In the course of collective struggle people change so that they look at themselves and others differently. In the case of workers, the possibility exists that they move from being a class in themselves to become a class for themselves.
10) There’s also a sense that there are shortcuts to getting people to struggle for their rights and interests. Collective struggle goes up and down in ebbs and flows. We are not living through a period of widespread, rising or successful struggle. Consequently, there is an impatience to jump from where we are to where we want to be in terms of the struggle for social justice and socialism. And there’s a belief that if the correct leadership is provided to workers then this will be the magic missing ingredient that will suddenly make them struggle in the way they should.
11) All this is understandable but nonetheless wrong and misguided. There is no substitute for mass struggle and the way it can transform those that take part in it. For socialists, it represents something of a chicken-and-egg situation. But patience and perspective are virtues here. The struggle is long and winding. Within it, it must be recognised that effective leadership emerges organically from within workers themselves. This does not mean that “outside” groups have no role to play. It does, however, mean that they be embedded within workers’ struggles.
12) Let’s be honest this coalition would love to see us back into a slice of the past goes down nicely with a cup of tea on the sofa. But David Cameron and George Osborne aren’t interested in Edwardian toffs. Their plans to freeze benefit payments hark back to the 1930s. They want to take us back to the time of Love On The Dole and the Means-Test Man, the hunger marches and the grim depths of the Great Depression. They think the political crisis of 1931, usually seen as a great historical failure, is the best model to follow.
13) Properly speaking, these aren’t government plans at all yet – more of an extended PR campaign for grinding the poor, run for the Tories by BBC Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton. The proposal to first freeze unemployment benefit for two years, then permanently break the benefit-inflation link, is not in any manifesto.
14) It seems even Employment Secretary Iain Duncan Smith isn’t in favour. But Osborne’s team wants to try the idea out and bounce the government into the cuts. Stratton – the go-to reporter for attacking the poor – obliged with breathless propaganda for the plan. She talked excitedly about “savings,” without interviewing a single unemployed person about which meals they would skip.
15) The benefit cut fans avoid the obvious historical parallel – in 1931 financiers tried shifting blame for the stock market crash by demanding Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government cut unemployment benefit to “save” Britain’s economic reputation and stick to the gold standard. City grandee Sir George May’s report outlined the cuts. The May report said raise £24 million taxing the rich and £64m slashing benefits. Today approach is actually worse than the ’30s – the coalition isn’t bothering with any extra tax on the rich.
16) In ’31 the cuts went through. They brought grinding poverty, but did not “save” the economy. Britain was forced off the gold standard within months. Some economic improvement came, but only from the opposite of government policy. Abandoning the gold standard and adopting government stimulus, not cuts and “discipline,” brought some life to the economy. The benefit cuts are being sold on “fairness,” suggesting low-paid folk with below-inflation pay settlements would love dole cuts.
17) There is a real problem of low pay – it lies at the heart of the recession, as people substituted credit for falling real wages. The personal debt bubble burst, contributing to the crash. But cutting the dole is no solution. Raising pay is the answer, both for the low-paid themselves and for the economy.
18) The £5 taken from the unemployed won’t go to the low-paid. Cutting the dole also deflates the economy. People on benefits spend all the money they have, the better off hoard it. So cutting benefits immediately sucks cash not just from those eking out a living , but also from the economy. This was true in the 1930s and is true now. In 1931 the slash-the-dole plan caused a political crisis, as Labour MPs wouldn’t back MacDonald’s cuts. We need to make sure any modern dole-slasher will also pay a political price for attacking the poor. They’ve stolen our schools, our hospitals and our public services. Now the Tories are coming for the pennies in poor people’s pockets. Freezing benefits is a staggeringly vicious attack of class war – but it’s doubtful the workshy millionaires in the Cabinet realise just how vicious. Neither the well-upholstered David Cameron nor any of his colleagues have missed meals to buy shoes for their kids or shivered under blankets because they can’t afford to put the heating on.
19)They have no idea how much difference even a pound or two a week matters to a household forced to account for every single penny. Which is why they can gloat about slashing benefits while they run the economy like the Bullingdon club on a cocaine-fuelled casino spree. The £10 billion to be cut from the welfare bill is peanuts compared with the £100bn we lose every year to tax-dodging by the rich and big business, never mind the billions thrown at the banks or squandered on wars.
20) This is one of the richest countries on Earth – and hopefully still will be even after the Con-Dems have finished trying to destroy it. We can easily afford a decent basic standard of living for every single one of us. The Tories will tell you otherwise but even they don’t believe their own argument.
21) They just want you to believe it while they get on with their mission of wrecking the welfare state that we built and fought for. But one look at the polls tells you that the British people have seen right through them. It won’t be long till they’re thrown out into the dustbin of history and we can get back to the job of building the better society the Tories don’t want us to have.
22) Stories reporting the ongoing financial meltdown in NHS hospitals have become a regular feature of our news pages. But today’s admission by watchdog Monitor’s chief executive David Bennett to a panel of MPs revealed just how big a failure the market system has become. The 24 trusts he cites are the tip of the iceberg.
23) Health Emergency’s Dr John Lister has spent decades watching the various failed NHS policies drawn up by politicians with a peculiar fetish for forced competition – and correctly predicting the results. When he brands the net result of the last 15 years of abuse of Britain’s real crown jewels a “policy balls-up,” it’s a criticism worth heeding.
24) It was market fanatic Blair and his new Tory acolytes who really went to town on hospital-building. But they weren’t funded the logical way – through low-cost government borrowing. No, the magic solution was to get firms to build expensive hospitals in return for the right to rent them back to the NHS on decades-long contracts.
25) Squeezed between huge hire fees and the need to flog their operations to other bits of the NHS to pay for them, the net result for hospitals is big debts. Lister and many others predicted this cash crisis years ago. Now he reckons no privateer has the capacity or the interest in taking on medical duties at these cash-crisis hospitals – unless they get millions in handouts to make it worth their while. So, he says, the only sensible solution is to take back our hospitals from the PFI bandits and turn them over to the people. Given Lister’s track record at calling it right, we can’t help but agree.
26) Now is the time to demonstrate outside the Tory and Fibdems Conferences to show them our anger towards their cuts to our public services and welfare benefits by their own words of ” We All In It together under the #BigSociety “.
27) Tory Party chief whip Andrew Mitchell may be the subject of a conspiracy between the Sun and the Police Federation or simply the victim of his words being misheard. But his main problem is that, given a choice between believing what police officers said and Mitchell’s own glossed-over version, most people would take the police side.
28) It’s understandable that multimillionaire Mitchell would feel embarrassed that a pro-Tory rag would record for posterity his reference to an officer as a “fucking pleb,” instructing him to “learn your fucking place.” It is understandable that Metropolitan Police Federation chairman John Tully should call for Mitchell’s resignation for conduct that he called “outrageous” and even the Prime Minister deems “not appropriate.”
29) Tully recognises that, if the roles had been reversed, any officer abusing a Cabinet minister would have been jobless in days. But that is not the Tory way. They might offer begrudging apologies to those they view as “below stairs,” but they see no reason why this should be the price of their job. Even former Tory Party chairman Lord Tebbit, whose own hotheadedness once led to his being all but throttled in Parliament by Labour MP and ex-miner Tom Swain, accepted that Mitchell’s behaviour had been “extraordinarily stupid.”
30) If he is, as Tebbit suggests, “under more pressure than he can handle,” surely resignation would be a kindness for someone incapable of controlling his temper. Apart from anything else, how can Mitchell, as chief whip, lecture fellow MPs on the need for discipline when he is clearly a loose cannon? Tebbit, of course, belongs to an era when Tory Cabinet ministers looked after the police, knowing that they would need them to put the boot into workers who resisted government policies to vandalise working-class living standards.
31) The current bunch of privately educated multimillionaires, obsessed with slashing spending on public services, see the police as simply public-sector workers alongside prison officers, nurses, doctors, civil servants and other similar riff-raff – or plebs, as some people might term them. The most shocking thing to some Tories about this affair is that Mitchell could have demeaned a police officer so openly.
32) Cabinet meetings, private dinner parties and Bullingdon Club wreckfests are one thing, but it isn’t done to slag the lower orders in public. However, Mitchell’s open abuse of police is complemented by his party’s treasurer Lord Fink, who admits to having lobbied George Osborne to reduce corporate taxation to levels similar to that of offshore tax avoidance havens.
33) Fink, who is a director of three firms linked to tax havens in the Cayman Islands, Guernsey and Luxembourg, blames “archaic” tax rules for forcing him and other speculators to take their wealth offshore. His overweening arrogance and self-interest is on a par with Osborne’s single-minded determination to reduce the top rate of income tax by five percentage points, benefiting just the richest 1 per cent of people in Britain, at a time when jobs, services, pensions, pay and benefits are all under government attack.
34) Far from bringing Britain more into line with tax havens, we should be closing down this means of tax avoidance and insisting that big business and the rich pay their fair share of taxation. It’s time for the plebs to stand up, having learnt that our place is at the helm not under posh boys’ feet.
35) Con-Dem Cameron’s callous Tories have been true to form all along with their relentless assault on one of the fundamentals of modern human life – a roof over our head. Only those who know nothing about getting by on the handful of remaining pounds in your pocket each week would create the Dickensian Catch-22 faced by those unable to afford private rent, which has been allowed to reach stratospheric levels by successive free-market governments.
36) Guided by an upbringing in anti-social behaviour that sees anyone who’s going through a tough patch as a victim of their own failings and that the best remedy to this is a boot up the behind onto the streets to face the kill-or-cure of fight or starve, the market-worshipping coalition cabal have come up with a truly despicable scheme.
37) It’s got little to do with saving money and much more to do with a inbred hatred of the simple concept of social solidarity. If it were about money then the first port of call to slash an annual housing benefit bill, which now totals around £22.5 billion, would not be to give less cash to the five million people who rely on it to get by. Of that total, 3.4m live in so-called social housing, with 60 per cent of these paying their rent to private bodies or arm’s-length institutions. In the other 1.6m cases private landlords are feathering their nests with state cash.
38) Now we hear from the National Housing Federation (NHF) that thousands of families are having to be put up in a single room in bed and breakfasts because there’s literally nowhere else for them to go. What a disgrace.
39) It would make a lot of sense to plough that £22.5bn housing benefit bill into the construction of good-quality commonly owned housing that would last way beyond the current tenants, giving society double the gain. The start-up money would be recouped via low-cost rents levied on tenants.
40) Meanwhile rent caps could stop money being shovelled into private landlords’ pockets and instead put it towards shovels to dig the earth to build more homes. By contrast, what doesn’t make sense is the Tory treble whammy that’s about to make a lot more people homeless, according to the NHF.
41) The Tories have already forced new social housing tenants to pay 80 per cent of “market rates,” while ensuring that anyone on housing benefits gets only 80 per cent of local private rents to spend on housing. And they’re about to cap total benefits at £500 a week, which will directly penalise the children of larger families. Depending on a tenant’s circumstances, being on the receiving end of any part of this triple hit could mean moving into an area of low-quality housing to make way for those better off than you – or leaving town altogether under council orders.
42) Or, as the NHF statistics showed today, being put up in a bed and breakfast because of a lack of suitable family housing. It’s long past time that the debate moved from the one or two families held up by the right-wing media as representatives of all benefits claimants. Benefits are there because the market system does not work. It neither provides sufficient jobs for us all, on sufficient pay, nor controls the rampant price of housing, which it treats as a commodity for profit and nothing else. Five million people and their families deserve better than this.