Into the party conference season:
The conferences of Trades Unions and Political once used to be the preserve of the English seaside. Blackpool and Brighton; Bournemouth and Scarborough; Eastbourne and Morecambe; Margate and Llandudno all played host. As the summer waned and hotels emptied of holiday-makers and beaches of their family parties sandcastles and all – the party faithful took up their places and chewed the political fat over bacon and egg. In recent times Labour has taken to Manchester and Liverpool but Bournemouth and Brighton have continued to lcaim the sole attention of the Conservative Party.
The last party conference season before any general election is always important. It’s really the last chance for a party to set the tone of its campaign ; a last chance to test the message that will be the medium of the election campaign to come. Four out of the last six parliaments have run to the full five years – five of them because the incumbent governing party was unpopular; this time it’s different; this time it’s because the coalition has bequeathed to us a fixed term parliament of five years.
The received wisdom going in to the recess last June was that Labour would inevitably slip back further over the summer months and the Conservatives would start to build their polling average as the sun shone over the UK’s economy bolstered by economic statistics. Miliband had had a poor Euro election campaign and the UKIP bubble had exploded into the Media as their story. Labour did particularly well in london and not as badly as some early results implied but the story had legs and it ran away from Labour. In the glory days of Campbell Mandelson and Blair this would never have happened. But whatever Miliband’s Labour is it is not New Labour.
To thwart this real possibility of being written off as the loser before the election race began – and after the battle of the bacon sandwich in the May elections – Ed Miliband and his minders thought it might be sensible to get ahead of the story and try to change the narrative. If Ed’s eating was not pretty sight he was not toast. Instead he was the filler in the political sandwich – the ideas man who would catch the voters’ eye.
The speech came and went in a moment of flaccid self-deprecation. I was at the speech and although I met a very interesting man – it sadly was not the Labour leader who was pretty laboured in his message. It was better reported in the press than it deserved and that of itself is interestingly judged. Ed miliband is nothing if not a tactician who likes to play the long game. That is after all how he won the Labour leadership.It was a carefully crafted piece of tactical manoeuvre in this very long preamble to the main engagement in May 2015. Ed is good at the long game.
In the event, good news came and went and the polls did not move towards the Conservatives despite all the hoopla over growth and employment statistics in the Media. The much mooted crossover keeps of happening only yo melt back into a stubborn Labour lead of 3% or so. In August 2004 Labour was ahead by 35. It won the 2005 election by that very same margin. Everywhere it appears there’s a sort of stalemate of discontent. The LibDems languish below 10%; the Conservatives hover in the the low thirties; Labour in the mid to upper thirties; UKIP remains in the low teens. If anything has happened since June – Labour has slightly consolidated its lead edging upwards from 3% towards 3-4%.
It is early days – but like the early days of the Presidential elections in USA 2012 the polls are not telling us the narrative story we might expect. This is deeply concerning for the coalition parties. They pretend it isn’t. The truth is – if there is little sign of change in their favour when all the elements for such a change are in place – then it must be that we are not in business as usual. All the models used by various predictive punters – Nat Silver-like – these analysts tell us the Conservatives will pick up another 3-5% and Labour drop another 2-4% and the Lib Dems and UKIP will swap their current positions. These predictions rest on previous polling and they may be reliable. However, these models rely on polling patterns which do not reflect the fact that the current government is a coalition. The point is why should the gainers from this drift from Labour be the Conservatives who have lost fewer supporters than the LibDems? That has been the point that has been chewed over by pundits all over the Media. It’s the story. However, the question it appears to ask suddenly no longer needs to be answered because we find we’re now in an entirely different game.
Last week a UKIP sponsored a press conference turned out to be an end of peer show produced by a knock-out Mr Punch – one Douglas Carswell – MP for Clacton-on-sea. In the best tradition English sea side grotesques Mr Farage smirked to camera. He looked like the cat who had had one barrel of cream but knew he still had another barrel to go – he smiled and smiled and played the villein – as is his wont. The coup de theatre was the defection of Craswell from the Conservatives to UKIP and – mightier than the mightiest – Carswell’s announced that he’d not only change parties but he’d resign and fight a by election…..collapse of stout party….in this case the Conservative Party.
Mr Cameron – whose unnatural hue has made him look as if he has spent the entire recess in some Only way is Essex tanning emporium, was almost left speechless by the well aimed dagger to the heart of his electoral strategy by this all too Noble Brutus from his own ranks. He might have cried: Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me – but he decided to go for the straight-acting jaw jutting pose of the statesman. He put on his brave face though from behind the mask he could not bring himself to mention Carswell by name – “these people” his sometime colleague Douglas had become – a nonentity in the third person singular – the very use of the collective noun raised the possibility that Carswell wasn’t alone in his treachery. No party quite panics with the aplomb of the Tory party. The rest of the right wing of the Conservative Party put on its poker faces and pretended they were all behind Dave and all against leaving the party, ever, ever. What they really meant of course was they were against calling a by election if they left the party.
Mr Cameron was meant to get a big boost from the forthcoming Tory Party conference. He was to leave it to cheers and balloons and happy shouts of Happy Birthday – head of a united party – and having carefully defused the threat of Boris. Now the by election on 9th October – Mr Cameron’s birthday – which the Conservatives look very likely to loose very very badly has rained on his parade. It leaves the PM not only with egg on his face – but with a serious problem – UKIP. The fact remains that for every vote Labour loses to UKIP the Conservatives stand to lose two and maybe three. it is a fact that has not escaped the calculating eye of a very silent Mr Miliband. Ed knows divided parties loose elections. suddenly the carefully crafted compromises of the referendum on renegotiated terms that Mr Cameron had taken straight from the Harold Wilson book on party management has unravelled. The tory right want to know Cameron’s bottom line – and wriggle as he will in the studio lights of the debates mr cameron will be asked this again and again. He wont have a straight answer to give largely because it was never his intention to ask the voters a straight question. referenda are the tool of a dictator Churchill once opined. It turns out that the great dictator in the Conservative party may be Mr Farage and Mr Cresswell who will write the terms of surrender for the Conservative right winger to impose upon their Prime Minister. How dear old boris smiles – even though he has lost an airport it seems there’s the hope of Downing St as a consolation prize.
Still referenda are never wholly predictable and the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley. Just when the Scottish referendum looked to be over all bar the voting there was another slew of polls which put the Yes Campaign within 6 points or so of the No Campaign.
This is not a referendum any of the current party leaders can afford to loose. Labour as it happens has most to lose from this debacle. If it goes down to another defeat – a third rebuff – the viability of Scottish Labour will be in question. It will make it hard for Labour to win the next election – especially to govern on the backs of Scots MP’s who will cease to sit in the UK Parliament in 2016. That said if Scotland says yes it is difficult to see any of the three party leaders who lost the Union could survive in place.
This is an interesting moment; it’s a time for party leaders to hold nerve mainly because there’s nothing else better to do….but that said the longer game is still to be played out and one we know….Mr Milliband has long had a game plan….it is no longer clear that can be said of either the LibDems or the Conservatives and that is of itself very, very interesting….