‘All I can say is that Keir Starmer doesn’t like glitter’. This is how a participant of a focus group run by The Times summed up the Labour Party Conference. Glibly, he concluded that the Conservatives held the better conference, because ‘at least I know where they stand on a few issues’.
Hardly a ringing endorsement for either party.
It’s been said before, but it is far too tempting for a tiny minority of Westminster obsessives to dissect and judge the conferences, making predictions of a huge swing one way or another, while declining to remember that most of the country are not remotely interested in what went on at the convention complexes rented out in Manchester or Liverpool this month.
And why should they be? The news and social media allow us to be constantly bombarded with what politicians do, think and say – their visits to building sites, their plans for education reform, their takes on gender – do we really need to check in with them every autumn to see how they’re doing?
But the conferences give the public the invaluable opportunity to hear about party policy, you clamour.
This is a pretty dubious claim, as even if the politicians did lay out a clear plan, it would never make the news. We are far more interested in the ‘glitter man’, Suella Braverman harking back to David Cameron’s choice language with her ‘hurricane’ of immigrants and Sir Ed Davey’s apology to the ‘clowning community’ after he called to ‘get the clowns out of number 10’.
Luckily, they didn’t give the reporters anything to grapple with anyway. Even those journalists who actually went to conferences admitted that they were thin on policy. This criticism was levelled with particular frequency at Labour, who appear to be carrying their Ming vase of a poll lead across the slippery floor, wrapped in so much bubble wrap that they can’t see where they’re going. And – crucially – neither can anyone else, with the participants of the focus group repeatedly using variations on the term ‘nothingness’ to describe Sir Keir Starmer and his party.
Perhaps those who have remained somewhat abreast of the developments at the various conferences will have picked up on a smattering of policies. They can’t, however, claim to have been excited or shocked, despite the language of ‘change’ which was suffused into every conference. The Conservatives are into tax cuts and limiting immigration, Labour want to divert money away from ministers’ private jets and towards the NHS. Oh, and the SNP are pushing for another referendum. All mind-boggling revelations.
Maybe most damningly, when I googled ‘top lib dem policies’, I was greeted with an image of Jo Swinson and her 2019 designs, including the good old plan to ‘Stop Brexit’ at number one.The Times didn’t even ask their focus group about Sir Ed Davey’s conference.
And yet, to me – straddling the odd position of listening intently to proceedings at conference, whilst simultaneously being rather confused by and ignorant of Westminster politics – despite all my complaints, the party conferences did feel more important this year. Naturally, as (possibly) the final set of conferences before a general election, they provided the various leaderships with one of their final opportunities to make their pitch to the nation. Or at least to those who are listening. But more than that, it’s hard to deny that this particular election cycle feels like a bit of a big deal. Is Keir Starmer going to confirm all the comparisons with Blair and perform a re-run of the Labour landslide of 1997? Will he secure the same razor thin majority as Harold Wilson in 1974? Or will we watch the Conservatives find a last-minute majority, as in 1992?
Not only do historical parallels abound, but this is the first post-Covid, post-EU departure general election, and after thirteen years of the same party in power, the sense of something dramatic looming on the horizon is palpable. And I don’t think that’s just me.
Disillusionment with the Tories was not only predictably discussed in Labour speeches, but reflected in the attendance at both conferences – journalists repeatedly mentioned that businesses had flocked to Labour, whilst the stalls at the Conservative conference were largely held by Conservative-run groups.
In addition, the media traction gained by Rishi Sunak equaled that of figures at the edge of the party – particularly Liz Truss and Nigel Farage – giving the impression of a chaotic, out-of-sync orchestra. This, in comparison to the unified if dull coalescence around the centre at Labour did no favours to Sunak’s attempt to brand himself as the ‘change candidate’ that will bring order and competency.
Even if we weren’t heading into such an important year, another factor remains which I feel merits recognition – there is something to be said for having a designated moment when our media pours an enormous amount of their resources into assessing our political parties and their priorities. Despite my cynicism about the lack of interest, the point that politicians are having their words scrutinised and their promises filed is crucial. Without wishing to be dramatic, our guaranteed annual opportunity to participate in this exercise of accountability is both a symbol and a foundation of healthy democracy.
We’re far too busy and the political landscape shifts far too quickly for us to remain constantly aware of what our politicians are calling for and denouncing, so the yearly duty of articulating what really matters to them means that at the very least, we get a stab at clarity.