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The Party Conferences

Submitted by on 14 Sep 2011 – 14:18

Gary GibbonGary Gibson, Political Editor Channel 4 News

Last year, the Tory Conference stage was dressed for a Stanley Baldwin tribute band. “Together in the National Interest” was the slogan, you couldn’t move for union jacks and the word “Conservative” was virtually banished from the main hall (on close inspection you could see it on the platform floor viewable from the upper circle of the Birmingham Symphony Hall).

In 2011, David Cameron’s under pressure to assert a little more Tory identity. The pre-Conference Tory blogosphere echoed to a lightly coordinated theme: the Lib Dems are getting it all their own way, playing David Cameron like a violin, killing Conservative radicalism, it’s time to fight back.

By the time of the next general election the Conservatives will want to be saying to the electorate: try us unvarnished, not hedged in by the Lib Dems, go for the “real thing.” So this conference season will see the leadership showing a bit more of what that might mean. David Cameron has been on a journey away from the more liberal approach to penal policy which in private meetings ministers thought he’d long since signed up to. George Osborne is itching to send out lower taxation signals.

But how Cameroon and modernising is all that? Inside No. 10, Steve Hilton and the pollster Andrew Cooper will be wrestling for the Conference agenda. Hilton will want some of the original Cameroon music playing and some Big Society tunes too. Cooper believes political parties should “follow the numbers” and do what the voters are saying they like. Cooper, on recent form, is decidedly ahead. Then there’s the Coalition to manage too. If Tory statements at Conference make the Lib Dems squeal when does legitimate party differentiation begin to look like a divided and ineffective Coalition?

The Lib Dems themselves have been showing more political ankle, differentiating in a way that was previously frowned on by Nick Clegg’s team. At last year’s Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool I remember Clegg loyalists scowling at Vince Cable’s speech. The Business Secretary departed from the Clegg approach back then to attack the Tories and to flash tempting morsels from a putative 2015 Lib Dem manifesto. The full pain of the Tuition Fees row was ahead of the Lib Dems at that point as were the full horrors of the May 2011 elections. After that, Nick Clegg shifted strategy. The deficit reduction plan is the central purpose of Lib Dem involvement in government and not up for negotiation, but just about everything else is and there’s no harm in telling the punters that.

Back in the early Summer, there was a feeling amongst Ed Miliband’s advisers that this year’s conference speech was going to be make or break. He was seriously in danger of “slipping into Neil Kinnock territory,” one adviser said, by which he said he meant “unelectable but unsackable.” The search was on for an eye-catching battle with his own. The unions were being lined up by some in his court for a choreographed fight. Nothing else, some argued, could prove to the country that he was to be taken seriously.

That was before Ed Miliband decided to stop taking drinks off the Murdochs and take them on instead. His daring move against them was, his team hopes, a useful substitute. Sir Chritsopher Kelly’s Inquiry into Party Funding, reporting just after the conferences, may provide enough opportunities for radical re-thinking on party funding anyway. Why force that particular issue early? So Ed Miliband is thinking of a different sort of “definition” in his speech now. Expect him to turn on the super rich for holding back the rest of the country, while making it very clear that doesn’t mean he blames them for everything.

None of which is quite radical enough for some of those who supported Ed Miliband from the beginning. There is a disenchantment with the Ed M you hear from MPs who were amongst the first to back him. Murdoch-bashing aside, they’re not sure they’ve got what they thought they were getting and some mutter that there are far too many David M supporters still in senior posts in the Shadow Cabinet.

The backdrop for all the whole conference season and for the decade(s) to come is, of course, a momentous economic upheaval. There are no running images on the rolling news to remind people of the enormity of the economic changes at work so we are apt to forget that Western economic powerhouses are teetering. That though is what will determine the politics of the next decade and beyond. For those of us following the twists and turns of the conference season, something we should remember. But I doubt we will.