2011 Pre-Party Conference Lexcomm
BOUNDARIES & ECONOMIC WOES DOMINATE AGENDA
We look back on a tumultuous summer and analyse the state of the parties as they enter the conference season. Ahead of the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham we assess the issues and the personalities in the first of a series of three LexComm party conference specials.
Almost 17 months on from the election, all three parties look more settled in their roles. The two Coalition parties have found their distinct voices, discarding the rose-tinted oratory of the first few months of partnership. Labour seems to be slowly emerging from mourning its loss of office.
The ‘silly season’ turned out to be serious with Greece on the verge of economic collapse, English cities looted and burned and Britain’s most powerful private sector media group brought to its knees. It is these three strands which will define the politics of this year’s conferences.
David Cameron’s task at his party’s conference is the easier of the three leaders, if only by a whisker. As Prime Minister, he can reprise his liberator of Libya triumph, describe grand social and economic themes and has the authority to announce initiatives which he can deliver in legislation. Cameron will celebrate his party’s achievements after more than a year in Government. His themes will be economic toughness to cut the deficit, social intervention to mend ‘broken Britain’ and sideswipes at irresponsibility from bankers and Eurocrats.
He will want to navigate a difficult path as father of the nation, above party, leading a successful Coalition, while reassuring his sometimes disaffected activists and MPs that he is one of them. They will be keen for him to demonstrate traditional Conservative values and balancing these internal demands with his usual instinct to speak direct to the nation will be his main challenge.
Nick Clegg has the most difficult job of all and carries the burdens of office heavily, navigating the tricky relationships with his Coalition partners and his own backbenchers and activists. At his conference he will face complaints over health, welfare reform, the impact of expenditure cuts and a wide range of other government initiatives.
Over time, the Liberal Democrats have developed a harder edge in their approach to the Coalition Government. They have found a distinctive voice and a way of criticising the Conservatives without fatally undermining the Coalition. In the current climate even the most die-hard Tory-phobes in the party recognise they cannot afford to ditch the Coalition yet.
Ed Miliband has a slightly easier task than he might have anticipated a few months ago. His more sure-footed performance on the News International crisis when he forced the pace means that he enters the conference season without the political commentators talking about Labour in crisis. Labour’s event will be the third most interesting which probably suits Miliband just fine. He will however be desperate to keep the unions away from the headlines during conference week. He can rally his party and prepare, if he wishes, for a wide-ranging reshuffle of his front bench team after the conference. Ed Balls’ first conference speech as Shadow Chancellor will be interesting to see if he assumes the role of the conference attack dog or takes a more nuanced approach.
During the summer, opinion polls have remained fairly consistent with Labour holding a steady lead over the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats trailing a long way behind (although their position is only slightly below historical norms at this stage in the electoral cycle).
Ed Miliband’s problem is that he is less popular than his party with 63% of respondents in a recent Times poll finding it difficult to imagine him as the country’s Prime Minister. Conversely, David Cameron is more popular than his party and while his ratings have declined (albeit with a narrow improvement in September) he remains the most popular party leader. All three leaders will seek to maximise a hoped for conference bounce.
LEX BRIEF: Boundary Changes
The publication of the new draft constituency boundaries earlier this week, in line with the Coalition’s policy to reduce the total number of constituencies from 650 to 600 with broadly equivalent electorates, has stirred a hornet’s nest in Westminster. This issue will be at the forefront not only the conference season but also the rest of the Parliament. MP will be pitted against neighbouring MP and outgoing Members will have little to dissuade them from acts of rebellion.
All but 77 of the seats in England are revised to some degree by the proposed boundary changes, with the North West and Wales facing a significant reduction. Major players in all parties, including Ed Balls, George Osborne and Danny Alexander are affected.
Post expenses, the link between MPs and their local constituencies is increasingly sacrosanct and the incumbency bias is recognised as a vital factor in securing re-election. It is likely that many MPs will stay and fight marginal local seats rather than go on a ‘chicken run’ to secure a safe seat in another part of the country.
This is only the start of the process; public hearings will take place across the country and the Bill will then make its way through Parliament with MPs expected to vote on the final plans in October 2013. Labour will oppose the Bill and a rebellion is possible on the Government benches.
LEX BRIEF: Planning reform
The Government’s new planning policy, which seeks to make the default answer to new development‘yes’ in the name of economic growth, faces stiff opposition from a coalition of environmental bodies who would perhaps prefer the answer to be ‘no’. A new ‘Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development’ has drawn particular criticism with the accusation that vast swathes of countryside willbe paved over, an emotive issue for many Conservative inclined voters.
Recent u-turns on the NHS and forests mean the press smell blood, but the Government has held firm so far with George Osborne making the case that planning reform is vital for economic growth and David Cameron emphasising that the green belt will remain protected. Helpfully, for the dynamics of the Coalition, Vince Cable has given the policy his strong backing. Opposition from Conservative activists and MPs in rural areas, where large scale development can be particularly controversial, could be harnessed by this well orchestrated campaign over the conference season. But whilst planning policy remains central to the Government’s growth strategy, a u-turn remains unlikely.
LEX BRIEF: Health Reform
The most far reaching reform package for the NHS in 60 years created one of the biggest headaches for the Coalition Government with backbenchers on both sides of the House, the clinical community and patients up arms.
The Liberal Democrat Spring conference was dominated by endless rows and controversy about the health reforms. Cameron, Clegg and Lansley had to react quickly in order to save the reform programme and their own reputations. The Government’s listening exercise was announced in early April, in the hope of calming nerves, leading to the publication of a revised Health and Social Care Bill in June.
The revisions to the package, particularly in relation to the new commissioning structure, appeared on the surface to have appeased many opponents of the reforms with a warm yet cautious reaction from politicians and clinicians alike.
However, a storm is brewing, with key critics of the Bill including Dr Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Minister who lost his seat in 2010, and party grandee, Shirley Williams back on the airwaves raising concerns about the private sector involvement in the health service.
The Health Bill is likely to dominate the Liberal Democrat conference and whilst Harris’s attempts to table a motion on the Bill were stymied, there will be a health reform Q&A on Tuesday and an emergency debate on Wednesday (which could be on the subject of the health reforms), just before the leader’s keynote speech. These opportunities for conference to raise its concerns are likely to put further pressure on Clegg to seek additional concessions when Parliament returns in October and the Bill begins its passage through the Lords.
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT CONFERENCE LOOK AHEAD
Nick Clegg will have to face the malcontents in his own party and beyond as the Liberal Democrats meet in Birmingham amid heightened security. A fence has been erected around the conference hotel (a decision taken following the August riots) and Birmingham will host the ‘March for the Alternative’ on Sunday, a gathering of tens of thousands of trade unionists who will march against the Coalition’s public sector cuts.
Nick Clegg’s personal ratings are the lowest of the three party leaders and have not recovered from his perceived betrayal over tuition fees. Conference provides a much needed opportunity for Clegg to try and improve his popularity with his party and the public at large.
Clegg will also have two specific objectives during the conference period. First, he will have to secure the forgiveness of his party for his failure to secure a yes vote in the AV referendum back in May. It may feel like light years ago but Liberal Democrat members, many of whom spent their lives campaigning for electoral reform, remain disheartened that the once in a generation chance for a new voting system was lost.
A debate on an internal party report, which places the blame at the door of Nick Clegg for his decision to call the referendum on the same day as the local elections, thus spreading too thin the party’s campaigning ability, will be buried in a consultative session early on Saturday before many of the delegates and the media arrive.
Second, Clegg will use the opportunity provided by the media spotlight (away from his Coalition partners) to show that he is standing firm on a range of issues. He accepts that he may not be popular with his party but he will seek to emphasise that he has their best interests at heart and use the occasion to highlight to the wider public the positive impact his party is having on the Coalition.
Other leading members of the Liberal Democrats, particularly Vince Cable (who will be looking to steal the limelight), will be testing the waters, seeing how far they can stretch collective cabinet responsibility while appealing to the party membership. While there is no obvious successor to Nick Clegg, Party Chair Tim Farron (whose seat has entirely disappeared in the boundary review) will be highly visible at the conference and is likely to join calls for a slow down in the cuts programme.
It will be interesting to see the extent to which Clegg will challenge the assumption that he has to be critical of Conservative elements of the Coalition agenda and whether he will be prepared to say to his party that there are limits on how confrontational the party can be, as the minor partner in the Coalition.
As was the case last year, there will be more interest from business attendees now the Liberal Democrats are a party of Government, although party membership attendees are slightly down on last year.
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT CONFERENCE: AT A GLANCE
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, will deliver his conference speech on Sunday lunchtime. Expect a staunch defence of the Coalition’s spending plans.
Tim Farron will address Conference as Party Chair on Sunday afternoon. Leading light of the anti-Coalition brigade (and likely future leadership candidate) he is critical of the leadership’s lack of communication of the party’s message.
Business Secretary, Vince Cable, will deliver his speech on Monday lunchtime and will be judged by the extent to which he decides to play to the audience in the hall or stay loyal to the Coalition’s policies.
A Q&A session with Nick Clegg on Monday afternoon will provide an opportunity for Conference to raise their concerns with their leader: it could be a difficult session.
Nick Clegg will bring conference to a close on Wednesday afternoon. The response of his party will be revealing.
On the fringe:
• Sunday 1pm: ‘Two tribes’, CentreForum/Fabian Society event with Norman Lamb and Labour MPs
• Monday 1pm: Guardian Debate, ‘Midterm makeover’ with Vince Cable and Paddy Ashdown
• Tuesday 8pm: ‘Do we need a Coalition exit strategy?’ a Lib Dem Voice panel discusses future options