As national elections are fast approaching, the main political parties are stepping up their campaigns. Currently it’s conference season – and conferences matter. In 2015 a new parliament will emerge, and clues as to which party it may be can be found in the party conferences.
However, what impact might proposed policies have? Impact combats student apathy and discusses party politics.
Firstly, Labour’s conference was on the whole received rather poorly by political pundits. George Eaton of the New Statesman bluntly wrote ‘there was little in [Ed Miliband’s] speech to convince those not already inclined to vote for the party to do so’. With a dominant theme of setting long-term goals, including a six-point plan for 2025, there was little to set the hearts and minds of voters racing right now.
Despite Miliband emphasising a commitment to improving young people’s lives, with an interesting take on apprenticeships and pledging to ensure that every firm in the country with a major government contract offers one, there were only the usual sound bites of ‘tackling the cost-of-living crisis’ and ‘tackling low wages’ to complement this. Rather surprisingly, there was no mention of the deficit or immigration; Miliband blamed this upon his fading memory.
Jack Boardman, chair of the University of Nottingham Labour Society, argued that the conference ‘put the NHS at the heart of Labour’s 2015 campaign’; and that ‘Miliband’s priorities were making the rich pay their fair share, increasing wages, creating high paying green jobs and building affordable homes’.
Optimistically, Jack summarised by claiming ‘Labour’s Britain is one in which everyone prospers, not just the few at the top’. Whilst this sounds wonderful, and Labour campaigners will cling dearly to this ideal, it looks increasingly likely that Labour will face a huge effort to achieve victory. It can be done, and has been done before, however.
In sharp contrast towards the Labour conference, there was a decisive and somewhat successful aura from the Conservative party conference, despite the background of a defection by Mark Reckless. Many plaudits signalled towards David Cameron’s resounding and rousing speech, whereby the Telegraph optimistically claimed ‘has made a Tory victory dramatically more likely’.
With a mixture of policies detailed out, most importantly that of raising the threshold to pay income tax, increasing the starting point of the 40p tax and promising to protect the NHS from any cuts, we begin to see a clearer picture of what voters can expect from the Conservatives when they head to the election booth next year.
Businesses were upbeat too about the conference, with John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, commenting that Cameron’s speech ‘stressed the importance of the economy and didn’t duck the scale of the challenges we face’. Unions were more sceptical, as has been the dominant trend, towards Cameron’s promises to protect the NHS; Len McCluskey, the Unite General Secretary, rather furiously argued that ‘David Cameron’s double talk on the NHS is a sick joke. The Tories are not the party of the NHS; they are the party that sold the NHS’.
Most controversially, the home secretary Theresa May has pledged voters that the Conservatives would commit to review the European convention on human rights (ECHR); and astonishingly, would not be afraid to leave the convention altogether. This has horrified people within and outside the party; Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, has warned of the impact this may have upon Britain’s international standing. Most likely, this policy was the culmination of May’s promise to the electorate to reduce immigration to tens of thousands, with European Union law to blame for being a stumbling block in achieving this ambition. This admittedly does have appeal to sections of the public.
Overall, Amelia Rose, publicity secretary for the Conservative Society at the University, who attended the conference at Birmingham, wrote positively of the boost that Cameron’s speech has made for the prospects for a Conservative victory: ‘the atmosphere in the hall when Cameron was speaking was so fantastic, everyone left feeling roused and ready to fight for a Tory majority government’. It is of no wonder then that a recent poll by YouGov has seen the Conservatives edge ahead of Labour by 1%
But what of the supposed threat from UKIP? After an avalanche of UKIP support, displayed through the European and local elections earlier this year, there has been a somewhat subdued atmosphere surrounding the party. Its conference promised cutting income tax from 40p to 35p for those earning up to £55,000, further determination to leave the European Union (what a surprise) and cutting UK foreign aid by 85%.
This is an appeal to win the ‘blue-collar vote’, something which is increasingly worrying mainstream politicians from across the spectrum; as traditional loyalties are increasingly becoming less and less the norm. Many are predicting a silent storm in the coming year, with Ross Hawkins, BBC’s political correspondent, writing that UKIP are deliberately styling themselves as ‘political outsiders: a powerful pitch to voters fed up with the other parties’.
Can the Greens also act as such political outsiders? They clearly are in angst over the low levels of media coverage, resulting in them being branded unwillingly as outsiders. Despite Caroline Lucas, their only MP, proudly claiming that they are the only ‘real opposition’, and the only real left-wing party left in the UK, it is true that they need to find recognition across the country as more than an environmental party.
Its leader, Natalie Bennett, spoke in conference on increasing the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020, a ‘wealth tax’ on those with assets more than £3 million and calling on change to media ownership laws. Has this been grabbing the attention of voters?
Duncan Davis, president of the Young Greens at the University, commented that ‘the Green Party conference is a lot different to the other party conferences. [Other party conferences] tend to be far more to do with big speeches and corporate lobbying. And their policies tend to be made by the leadership or some committee high up in the party, unlike the democratic process of the Greens’.
Whilst this may all seem well and good, it is difficult to see how this ideal can be publicised fully enough to translate into Green support.
Finally, whilst some may argue that the Liberal Democrats are truly buried; its conference has been providing us with vital clues as to what we can expect from the Liberals.
Will it be the last time a conference is held for them whilst being part of the establishment? The electorate definitely feel so, with the party polling an average of 8% compared to 23% in 2010. The Guardian summarises by arguing that ‘The coalition has taken a terrible electoral toll but the liberal voice still has vital things to say’.
Nick Clegg has pushed through the policy of raising capital gains tax for higher earners, to fund increasing the threshold to pay income tax to £11,000 (something which Clegg claims the Conservatives have plagiarised). This, Clegg has claimed, is different to the Conservative ideal, whereby a freeze on the level on benefits would fund tax cuts.
Rather embarrassingly, however, the Liberal leadership was defeated on the motion for further airport expansion, with its activists decisively voting against any expansion to Gatwick. This highlights the difference between those at the top of the Liberal party and those fuming in the ranks, who claim the party has lost its green agenda by going into coalition with the Conservatives.
It has been rumoured that even Liberal strategists are in sorrow over the coalition’s impact upon their leader’s image, which is currently standing at a staggering -42 approval rate according to ICM. This conference will likely be the last for Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
So, whilst the general election is still out in the horizon and not fully in view yet, these party conferences have helped us to glean a bit more as to what may happen. Whilst low levels of student activism and apathy are issues that need to be tackled, the growth of membership to political parties on campus is a positive sign that students can indeed have an impact.
With the promise of lively student debate and discussion as election campaigns begin to roll ahead, 2015 will prove to be an exciting year to be on campus.
Image courtesy of Liberal Democrats via Flickr