UK Party conferences 2016 - a comedy of errors

Written by Tom Freeman on 24 September 2016 in Inside Politics

Both Labour and Conservatives, the big political parties in the UK, are deeply divided, but amidst the drama one is holding it together

Two years have passed since Scotland voted on independence and there has been no shortage of political drama since. And as the UK parties congregate for their national conferences, the language remains the stuff of melodrama. 

As he kicked off the UK party conference season, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron used the word “bereavement” to describe how he felt after the country voted to end its formal relationship with the European Union.

It will be a word which no doubt chimes with his Lib-Dem comrades as they face a much diminished role and influence in British politics, with only eight MPs in the House of Commons, a five-a-side team at Holyrood and one solitary member of the Welsh Assembly.


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Similarly lonely is the Liberal Democrat voice taking part in what remains of Britain’s involvement in the European Parliament. 

“Being in Europe is undoubtedly still the best thing for the Liberal Democrats,” Farron said in a radio interview as he previewed the conference. 

But only 66-year-old Catherine Bearder enjoys such a pleasure, sitting as she does, ringside, among 750 fellow MEPs as they witness increasingly terse proceedings, including Nigel Farage accusing the parliament of “declaring war” on Britain for appointing former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt as its lead negotiator. 

If the plight of the Liberal Democrats seems a tragedy, then contributions to the debate in Brussels have been even more Shakespearean in scale, as exemplified by SNP MEP Alyn Smith’s “I beg you, do not let Scotland down now” speech.

Tim Farron may feel cast as the character Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, cursing the two mainstream parties whose divisions and internal fighting have played a big part in the maelstrom in which the Lib Dems find themselves little more than observers.

For while the governing Conservatives face a conference underwritten by an ideological divide which has not been solved by the EU referendum, and which lies in wait for Brexit to be formally defined, the Labour Party travels to Liverpool trying to contain such hostile internal divisions the future of the party itself is at stake.

Both leaders, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, were accused of not investing enough in the campaign to remain in the EU, and of attempting to quickly move on in the wake of the result.

‘A plague on both your houses,’ indeed.

But while both leaders have faced challenges and criticism from within their own ranks since the referendum result, their fortunes have been markedly different. 

The contrast can be summed up in the actions of one woman, Andrea Leadsom, who fought hard to become the only remaining challenger to Theresa May only to step aside and allow her rival to take the reins early. As May was handed the freedom to stamp her authority on the deeply divided Conservative Party, the deeply divided Labour Party was tearing itself apart. 

Had Leadsom stuck it out, the new Prime Minister would have only been announced this month, and the Conservatives would have travelled to Birmingham to hear their fresh new leader.
Instead, May has placed Leadsom and other prominent Brexiteers into her cabinet and is enjoying the biggest opinion poll lead over Labour since the year began.

Rather than managing a transition this month, David Cameron has already been consigned to the political history books, having announced he is stepping down as an MP. 

Labour, meanwhile, has seen such an enormous ideological split it has the potential to make Tony Benn’s deputy leadership bid in 1981 and the subsequent creation of the SDP look like the merest taming of a shrew.

And while little was made of Conservative Party members being denied a choice of leader, Labour’s attempts to prevent Jeremy Corbyn retaining his leadership has seen voting rights contested in court and newer members being vetted based on comments made on social media.

According to politics lecturer Dr Alan Convery of the Centre on Constitutional Change, the different approaches can be traced back to the longstanding democratic traditions of the two parties. Conservative members, he says, were not outraged to have missed out on a vote.

“Of course, Iain Duncan Smith was removed by the parliamentary party having won a mandate from the party members, so the Conservative Party overall is a party less concerned with party members’ input into policy making,” he says.

“There are consultative structures to consult party members and other interests on policy-making but essentially, the Conservative Party is a top-heavy, elite-driven organisation. William Hague said the Conservative Party is an absolute monarchy punctuated by regicide. Provided the party thinks you’re going to win, the leader gets a lot of leeway.”

Despite attempting a regicide of its own, Labour in contrast has more “ideological baggage”, Convery suggests. “The Labour Party has always been more attached to a certain ideological heritage, a sense of internal party democracy and structures, in terms of involving not only party members but the coalition of trade unions and other interests that founded the Labour Party as well.”

Interestingly, May’s proposed introduction of grammar schools in England has seen creaks in Tory unity in recent weeks, while Jeremy Corbyn found an unusual unity behind him as he faced her on the subject at Prime Minister’s Questions. 

Sensing disquiet among her backbenchers on the issue of selective schools, Corbyn took the unusual step of using all of his questions on the same subject.

“It’s not about pulling up ladders, it’s providing a ladder for every child,” he said, going on to quote her predecessor at the despatch box: “There is a kind of hopelessness about the demand to bring back grammars ... I want the Conservative Party to rise above that attitude.”

Corbyn said: “Isn’t he correct to say what we need is investment in all of our schools, a good school for every child, not this selection at the age of 11? The government is heading backwards to failed segregation for the few and second-class schooling for the many.”

While Cameron has denied his Commons exit is down to a disagreement with the direction May is taking the party, his own views on policy appears at odds with his successor.
May seemed far less comfortable than she had in previous encounters. 

“Can I gently remind the Right Honourable Gentleman, he went to a grammar school, I went to a grammar school; it’s what got us where we are today,” she said, also reminding him it could well be his last PMQs.

For once, though, Corbyn’s critics were supportive. Lucy Powell, who was a key mutineer from the shadow cabinet and a supporter of his leadership rival Owen Smith, tweeted: “Jeremy Corbyn easy win at #PMQs. Theresa May has made a serious misjudgement on grammar schools. Her MPs know it.”

What awaits May in Birmingham, then? 

BREXIT BATTLES IN BIRMINGHAM

With such a lead in the polls, the Tory conference is likely to be a bright, buoyant affair but behind the bragging in Birmingham remains a Brexit battle.

Despite May’s claim that “Brexit means Brexit”, the Conservative Party remains divided, according to Convery.

In calling for “one-nation Conservatism”, May has emulated all post-Thatcher Tory leaders, he says, but there are indications she may have “put her money where her mouth is” when it comes to establishing what she calls a “proper industrial strategy”. 

The state taking a role in industry is not a new concept for May either. Speaking to Conservative Home in 2013, May said: “Now, before you think I’m about to reach for the beer and sandwiches, I’m not talking about failed seventies-style corporatism. Nor am I talking about a different type of big government. I’m talking about a more strategic role for the state in our economy.”

Convery points out this is the sort of language which got short shrift from George Osborne when pushed by Liberal Democrat business secretary, Vince Cable, during the 2010 coalition government. 

“We don’t yet know the extent to which she’ll really follow through on that but it’s something we’ve not really seen under any previous post-Thatcher Tory leader. This leans to debates within the Tory party we thought were settled in terms of industrial intervention, having an explicit industrial strategy,” he says.

Could Tory conference see some more details on what the industrial strategy might look like? The responsibility will fall on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Greg Clark. Convery suggests it may cause “consternation” among the free market Thatcherite backbenchers.

This potential ideological divide will seem insignificant compared to the one issue which has divided the party more than anything else: Europe.

Ahead of the referendum vote, 119 Tory MPs announced they would vote to leave the EU, while 134 said they’d vote to stay. Theresa May appointed prominent Brexit campaigners into the very roles which will take responsibility for the UK’s succession.

Boris Johnson became Foreign Secretary, Liam Fox International Trade Secretary and David Davis took the new role of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.

Leadsom became Environment Secretary, faced with establishing how the rural economy will endure the loss of EU payments to farmers.

But if these appointments of senior Leave campaigners was an attempt to heal rifts in the party, May still has her work cut out, according to Convery. 

“I don’t think this referendum has nearly resolved any of the splits in the Conservative Party about Europe.

“We’ve merely moved from a question of whether we should be in or out of the European Union to a split, with the same people on either side of the debate, between those who want a ‘hard Brexit’ and a ‘soft Brexit’.”

While a “phoney war” may be fought quietly in the fringe meetings at conference, the real divide will emerge once Theresa May defines what Brexit actually looks like, suggests Convery.

“Brexit means whatever you want it to mean at the moment. But as soon as Theresa May defines what Brexit means, at that point you’re going to disappoint one half of the party,” he says.

In this, the Conservative divide perhaps runs deeper than Europe.

“It was never really solely about the European Union,” says Convery. “It was a wider debate about Britain’s place in the world and how you deal with globalisation and free markets at the same time as trying to protect a small ‘c’ conservative sense of control over the British state. That’s a big faultline that still runs through the party.”

However these tensions manifest themselves in Birmingham, they will be upstaged somewhat by events in Liverpool, where Labour’s civil war comes to a head.

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST IN LIVERPOOL

The majority of Labour’s parliamentary party travel to Liverpool to bury Jeremy Corbyn, not to praise him. But for those who hope the resolution of the leadership challenge at the top of the Labour Party will feel like the final act of a bloody war, in truth, the bloodletting has likely barely begun.

Corbyn shares more than his initials with Julius Caesar, it seems, with the knives barely concealed since he was elected in September last year.

New rules for electing the party leader introduced by Ed Miliband have since been retracted and reformed by the party’s ruling NEC in an attempt to prevent such a thing happening again.

On the same day as Andrea Leadsom stood aside to allow Theresa May to take office, Angela Eagle launched her challenge against Corbyn, in a bid to “heal the party”. 

And as Theresa May entered Downing Street, Owen Smith threw his hat into the ring. 

Interestingly, in an interview with The Guardian with only days left of voting last week, Smith admitted: “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge, but once a challenge had been made then I felt I needed to stand because I felt that I had something to say about the future of the Labour Party, and a lot of other people in the PLP felt that about me, which is why they asked me to stand.”

Miliband’s reforms were to “help turn Labour into a movement again”, but a surge in party membership to 600,000 has been met with dismay by the party establishment, who believe many are “entryists” who do not wish to see the party in power.

Smith said the Corbyn-supporting Momentum faction was treating the party “like a host body” to promote left-wing ideals. 

“There is nothing comradely about setting up a party within a party. Still less in trying to use our movement as a host body, seeking to occupy it, hollow it out, until it’s outlived its usefulness, when you throw it aside like a dead husk,” he said.

But many of the new members found themselves denied a vote or even expelled in what became an unprecedented purge in the party. 

It became clear the newly elected leader would be enjoying a pyrrhic victory, as speculation grew that one side or the other might leave the party.

For Convery, it is all about what compromises Labour members are prepared to make, whether that is the left’s willingness to make compromises with the wider electorate to get into power, or the parliamentary party’s willingness to compromise with the left, something which has not been evident thus far.

“The Corbyn surge has been interesting, particularly with the new members,” he says. “The French socialist party had some success with getting people to pay a small amount of money in order to vote, but I think the concern for political parties is about people being in it for the long haul.”

The gulf between ordinary members and the parliamentary group has been “debilitating” for the party, he says.

According to Convery, the gap can be traced back to the way Tony Blair led and failed to maintain the “deep roots” of centrism within the party.

“I think it goes back to the hegemony of Blair within the party not creating the type of sustainable structures which might have maintained that kind of ideological leaning within the Labour Party,” he says.

But didn’t Ed Miliband make some attempts to reconnect with the grassroots?

“I think to a lot of party members, they saw the Miliband strain of thought as a continuation of Blairism by other means, perhaps. It clearly failed electorally. 

“In that sense, some party members might be looking for a more radical departure from that. But that was really a failure of Blair and Blairism to renew itself and provide the tools to renew itself after the departure of Blair and Brown.”

Even if the relationship between Labour Party members and their elected representatives is healed, the small matter of convincing those who vote for other parties to back them remains. And with a recent tradition of expulsions and purging of its own members, the party has a long way to go to begin to convince others of its merits, let alone a recruitment drive.

COALITION 

The two great coalitions of interest which have dominated British politics for nearly a hundred years are more openly divided than ever, then. As votes for other parties have increased, disputes between factions in the Conservative and Labour parties have become more evident.

“We now have this really odd situation where we have a majority in the electoral system that’s trying to deal with not only a fragmenting party system in England, but also an increasingly entirely different party system in Scotland,” says Convery.

This has left those party leaders in Scotland in a difficult position. Ruth Davidson’s prominence in the Remain campaign in the EU referendum has left her juggling the wishes of the Scottish electorate with the more hardline “Brexit means Brexit” line of the UK party, this during a period which has seen the constitutional debate remerge as the dominant conversation in Scotland once more. A debate in which Davidson has been a willing participant, taking a strong unionist strategy in the Holyrood election to gain second place at the Scottish Parliament.

Kezia Dugdale, meanwhile, threw her weight behind Owen Smith. 

“Perhaps she takes a view in the long term another leader would be better, but I think long term is the operative word for the Scottish Labour Party. I don’t think they’re coming back, certainly not to government in 2021, so they need to be thinking of a two election strategy, and also in terms of what they’re for as well,” says Convery.

The SNP, of course, is in no doubt what it is for, and recent weeks have seen the argument for independence move on from the economic case which has largely fallen apart since 2014.

“Two years on from the historic vote of 2014, the fundamental case for Scotland’s independence remains as it was. The case for full self-government ultimately transcends the issues of Brexit, of oil, of national wealth and balance sheets and of passing political fads and trends,” said leader Nicola Sturgeon in a column for the Sunday Herald

But the reality is the polls have not moved on in the way she would have hoped, with a number showing a majority still favours the Union.

But who could these pro-EU unionists turn to in these turbulent times? The Liberal Democrats, perhaps? At conference, Scottish leader Willie Rennie told delegates electoral victories in Fife, Edinburgh and the Northern Isles, showed the party was “tearing up the script”.

He wasn’t clear about which script he was tearing up. As you like it, Willie. 

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