The curly sandwiches have all been eaten, the beer has all been drunk and everyone has a cold. It must be end of conference season. For the first time in my life, I attended all three Party conferences this year. I met and spoke with friends from each Party, and I also took the time to just sit quietly in the throng and listen to what the delegates had to say when talking to each other. This – far more than the stage managed media focused messages from the stages – will tell you where a party is at.
First up was the Lib Dems – or the Millwall conference as it became known in my head. Like the Labour Conference of 2009, the unofficial theme was definitely “No one likes us, we don’t care”. Listening to delegates there were two themes that came up time and time again. They are obsessed with canvassing techniques and they hate, loathe and detest both Labour and the Guardian newspaper.
This might come as something of a shock to some of the writers in the Guardian. Particularly those who still harbour dreams of a Lib-Lab alliance and believe the only thing standing in the way of this is Labour’s tribal intransigence. Honestly the tribalism coming from the Lib Dems was positively tangible. It is not a force to be dismissed. Any potential Lib/Lab deal in the event of a hung Parliament in 2015 would have significantly more than mere numbers against it.
On the other hand, one of the most interesting things about the other two conferences was how little the Lib Dems were mentioned. Last year, they were still considered a lobby target from Labour over key issues like the NHS and the worst aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill. Labour members still thought their MPs might see sense, show their humanity and were confounded at the lack of response campaigning organisations had received. This year, having capitulated on or simply agreed to so much, this isn’t really an issue that Labour members concern themselves with anymore. They’ve gone back to just being the team we have to beat in some seats.
Worse for the Lib Dems, is that while their platform was full of talk of them “taming the Tories”, from the conversations I overheard, they are barely discussed at all by the Tories. When they are, they are seen as little more than an irritant. Not a brake, just the whiney noise that a damaged brake that isn’t working makes.
But of course conference isn’t just about the members. It’s also about the leaders. Ed, Dave and Boris.
Ed had something to do at his conference and he did it. Ed has come out of the conference period with the press pack giving him a second look – or perhaps even a first proper look. He now seems to those who will set the agenda more like a PM-in-waiting. It’s far from a finished job, but Ed’s speech had the desired effect and has changed the narrative for now. Given the contrast with the response to his speech last year, that’s more than enough.
Cameron had nothing to do really and that’s just what he did. His speech wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad at all. It just wasn’t good either. It was just good enough, especially now Boris has started to wind his neck in, to see Cameron through.
But maybe that’s Cameron’s problem. He keeps doing ‘ok’ . He rarely excels. This was a flat speech from a flat conference. Its sombre tome chiming with the renewed sense of pessimism that the end of the Olympics, the beginning of autumn and the dreadful projections from the IMF bring to us all. Cameron was clearly trying to contrast his seriousness with Ed’s optimism. While dividing the country into strivers and skivers, setting neighbour against neighbour (according to George Osborne this has something to do with the state of our curtains).
Clegg said sorry and everyone laughed. Ed has had the boost he needed to come out of conference season with, but Labour must now build on that. Dave has not had the scare that might have changed his path. Whether or not that will be a good thing, only time will tell. Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have come out of conference season more secure in their jobs and more convinced of their rightness for the roles they play. But it will be the differences in their characters, and how those manifest in their response to these conference boosts that will make the real long term difference. Bring it on.