PARTY CONFERENCE SEASON RECAP

by Chris Jarvis

Political punditry’s busiest time of the year has come to a close, as most of Britain’s political parties have wrapped up their annual festivals of spin, spectacle and speculation – only Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Greens remain un-conferenced. What a season it has been.

Typically speaking, party conferences go mostly  unnoticed, change little in the political landscape, and are quickly forgotten as the cogs of history whirr on unshaken. 2017 will be more than an aberration to that pattern. True, the ‘smaller’ parties failed to make a mark this time round too. Little of note came out of the SNP or Green Party of England and Wales conferences. The sole memorable moment of the Liberal Democrat soiree was the laughable assertions trotted out to the press time and again, that Vince Cable could soon be the next Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. UKIP’s will only be recalled as the final subdued howl of Little England defiance as it casts itself into electoral and political irrelevance. That notwithstanding, this year was a bumper crop.

this year was a bumper crop

After nearly a decade of seeming the unassailable and domineering force in British politics, the ‘natural Party of Government’, this year was the Conservatives’ unravelling, exemplified perfectly by their flagship event held in Manchester. The initial blows came in the General Election campaign when a self-destructive manifesto and lacklustre campaign saw the Party plummet until they lost their majority in parliament. Then, the weeks preceding the event were rife with silly-season rumblings of dissent, division and leadership challenges, with just a hint more truth-ringing through them.

First came the media love affair with a potential future Rees-Mogg premiership, as the man with the voice, politics, and morals of a villain from a Charles Dickens novel was flung across television studios, opinion polls were conducted and Twitter became ablaze in simultaneous horror and amusement. Evidence not of manoeuvres perhaps, but without doubt of the state of the Conservatives.

( P45 handed to Theresa May from comedian Simon Brodkin via Twitter )

Next, and of much more significance, came Boris. In a 4,000 word article for the Telegraph, he set outside his vision for a post-EU UK, widely perceived as an attempt to undermine Theresa May’s forthcoming speech on that exact topic in Florence. Worse still, as has been alleged since, the article formed the basis of a speech he was explicitly instructed not to deliver by the Prime Minister.  Making matters worse, Amber Rudd’s subsequent accusation that Boris was “backseat driving” the Government on Brexit did little to assuage the sense that the Party was riddled with disunity.

As a lead-in to the Tory Party Conference, this was bad enough. Then the conference itself happened. Putting aside the terrifying policy announcements (such as 15 years imprisonment for accessing ‘terrorist content’ online) and outrageous comments at fringe meetings (e.g. Sirte could be the new Dubai if it took steps to “clear the dead bodies away”), it was an unmitigated disaster.

Then the conference itself happened. […] it was an unmitigated disaster.

After repeating the mantra of ‘strong and stable’ with all the fervour of a believer racked with religious guilt from April through June, the imagery of Theresa May in Manchester was as palpable as it was fitting. Sure, no one can be blamed for succumbing to a cough, and the shoddy set construction was no fault of the Cabinet, but it was all indicative nonetheless. How far we have come in the last 6 months, that a leader who once oozed such confidence that she called a General Election on the intention to strengthen her position in Government, now finds herself being handed a P45 by a comedian. Historians have made much of Neil Kinnock at the Sheffield Rally in 1992, and of Iain Duncan’s difficult second album of 2003 – “The Quiet Man: Volume 2” in Blackpool. Those self-same historians will write similarly of Theresa May in Manchester.

Contrast this debacle with Labour’s dalliances in Brighton. Despite the occasional policy gaffe, the overwhelming mood emerging was of jubilance. This time last year, the Party was escaping from the throes of a gruelling leadership election, where Jeremy Corbyn’s position was cemented in the Party, but weakened in the public. Fast forward to October 2017 and Labour are now not only as united as they can be, given the changes in the Party’s politics and leadership in the last two years, but they’re also now consistently ahead in the opinion polls. Commentators who once wrote Corbyn and his allies off – much as they did in the 2015 leadership election – now talk confidently about how he is a Prime Minister in waiting.

( Jeremy Corbyn CC BY-SA 4.0 Sophie Brown )

What’s truly remarkable about this is not that a left wing Labour leader is in a position of strength or that he could soon form a Government – remarkable though that is. No, the remarkable achievement is that the insurgents within the Party have remained just that – insurgent. As the aptly named left wing faction of Labour is named, momentum is hard to keep up. The conference wasn’t an exercise in merely consolidating influence within the Party for the left and of maintaining its standing with the public, it was advancing that influence and improving that standing. Policy announcements, internal procedures, and narrative setting were all successful endeavours for the Party’s Corbynite wing. Labour have emerged out of conference season in a stronger polling position than they’ve had since July.

And so, as the dust settles on conference season, and Grant Shapps’ failed coup to oust Theresa May fades into the distance, we see Corbyn’s Labour in a stronger position than ever before. As we descend further and further into the mess of Brexit negotiations, as Tory disunity rumbles on, and the year draws to a close, we get closer with each passing day to the removal of the Conservatives from power, and the election of a radical, progressive Labour government. With hindsight, it will be Party conference season 2017 that will be remembered as one of the final chapters in the prologue to that Government.

Featured image via The British Drea


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