Country: The United Kingdom
Subject: The Conferences of the Labour and the Conservative Party
The annual conferences of the two largest political parties in the U.K. did not promise such excitement as last year's. Then, Prime Minister Gordon Brown floated the idea of calling an early election before the Labour conference, while David Cameron's leadership was hanging in balance and his performance at the Conservative Conference in Blackpool was of utmost importance for his political future. In contrast, though some within the Labour Party had voiced their concern about Labour's chances at the next general election under Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister was able to quiet the murmurings about his replacement - at least for the time being.
As for the Conservatives, their conference was eclipsed by the emerging financial and economic crisis to a considerable degree; the major task of the Tory leadership was not to struggle to solidify its position within the party, but to demonstrate to the British electorate and the world that they are ready to take power over in the U.K. The message of the Labour Party conference was that these times need 'experience', while that of the Conservatives centred around the notion of 'responsibility'.
The Labour Party has been having a rough time recently. The Government committed a number of mistakes, the most significant being the attempt to eliminate the 10 percent income tax. Its growing unpopularity resulted in unexpected defeats at various by-elections in previously safe Labour constituencies. The Conservative Party has pulled ahead of the Labour Party by some 20 percentage points, which would mean a landslide Tory victory if the general elections were held today, with about one-third of the Labour MPs' losing their seats.
The electoral map shows a dangerous shift in party support for the Labour Party: under the present circumstances it would be almost completely annihilated in the south except for London, and would suffer heavy losses in the North as well, while in Scotland a resurgent Scottish National Party under Alex Salmond may become the strongest political force. According to a survey made among the Labour party members, 55 percent of them believe that the party is more likely to win if Gordon Brown went.
On a personal level, Gordon Brown does not have his predecessor's political charisma; moreover, shortly before the annual party conference, Tony Blair in a memorandum, which was writen in the autumn of 2007 but was leaked to the press in August, sharply criticized both Brown's policies and his style. He wrote about the 'hubris and vacuity' of the 2007 Party Conference and complained that his successor junked his 'policy agenda but had nothing to put in its place'. To add insult to injury, Cherie Blair in her memoirs painted a rather unflattering picture of Gordon Brown's personality.
At the same time, a large number of senior Labour politicians are said to be harbouring the dream of succeeding Gordon Brown in the near future. Foremost among them is current Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who was even expected to challenge Brown's leadership in June 2007 when Tony Blair left. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls had a comprehensive school reform at hand when he was appointed; some observers came to conclusion from this fact that he had been quietly preparing for higher jobs. Then, there is Health Secretary Alan Johnson, Justice Secretary Jack Straw - the latter might rather be a transitory leader and not a long term solution - the Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell and, finally, a backbench MP, Jon Cruddas, who - being on the left of the party - enjoys the support of the unions. One of the more radical steps taken by the Blair-Brown leadership in the 1990s was to push the influence of the trade unions within the Labour Party back with a concomitant shift from the collectivist economic ideas to a middle-of-the-road more market forces orientated ones. Nevertheless, with the growing economic problems, in the face of the rising fuel, food, and borrowing costs, the trade unions have stepped up pressure on the Government to return to a more 'caring' neo-Keynesianist economic policy. (It is worth bearing in mind that the unions possess one-third of the votes at the Labour congresses.)
Given the personal aspect of the challenges, Gordon Brown's speech at the Conference was dwelling more on the personal virtues than is usually the tradition in the U.K. Perhaps the Prime Minister's most memorable line was his double-barrelled comment on experience: 'Everyone knows that I am all in favour of apprenticeship, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice.' The delegates at the conference was delighted to hear this jab at David Cameron, but the observers have emphasized that the comment could as much refer to David Miliband as the Conservative leader. Brown denounced the dogma of unbridled free-market forces and promised what can be interpreted as a straight social democratic program, including social care for the elderly, better education for the disadvantaged, first-rate universal health care, and more nursery schools. A central idea in his speech was the power and the duty of government to deliver a fairer society. The big question is, however, where the money for all these programs will come from? The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alastair Darling promised that all the new spending items would be funded from existing budgets. Given the current economic crisis, it is more than unlikely that the ambitious and expensive programs can be implemented any time soon.
PM Brown moved fast after the conference. He reshuffled his cabinet; the single most important change seems to be European Commissioner Peter Mandelson's return to the Government. Mandelson was one of the architects of Labour's victory in the 1990s and served in Blair's cabinet twice, but he had to leave both times in dubiuos circumstances. Moreover, he has not been especially close to Gordon Brown. Yet he is one of the most accomplished politicians in Britain and his skills and experience might well be useful, unless events and forces stronger than the British Government render his services superfluous and insignificant.
The Conservative Party and its leadership were in a much better position than their Labour counterparts and, therefore, one of the traps David Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet members had to avoid was triumphalism. In fact, there was even a warning shot across the bow of the Conservatives' ship: the post-Labour Conference bounce showed that the approximately 20-point lead over the Labour Party was halved and, more ominously for David Cameron, according to an opinion poll, the British people trust Gordon Brown better than the Tory leader in a crisis by 43 to 33 percent. David Cameron deftly countered Brown's 'experience' argument by, among others, recalling how experienced James Callaghan was in 1979 and how wise it was for the benefit of the country to elect Margaret Thatcher with a much thinner resume.
The Conservatives adopted a two-pronged attack against Labour's policies and Gordon Brown personally. Shadow Chanceller of the Exchequer George Osborne challenged his economic record and pinned, partly, the current financial and economic turmoil down on Brown's stewardship of these areas in the past ten years. He blamed the Labour Government for making excessive personal and state borrowing possible and declared that his priority would be to reduce borrowing rather than providing upfront tax cuts. In other words, he broke with the traditional Tory fiscal policy of cutting taxes and moved toward the 'middle' - where the votes are anyway.
He did not spare words attacking the irresponsibility of the City bankers for the mess they had made in the 'capitalist casino'. David Cameron added in his own speech that the Blair and Brown governments made two huge mistakes: one, while making the Bank of England independent, they also took its power away to regulate financial markets; and two, government borrowing went out of control. After the first two years of prudent economic policies (1997 and 1998), the Labour Government became 'spendaholic' - this term is likely to be used very frequently by the Conservatives in the next weeks and months.
It was not only Gordon Brown, but also David Miliband who served as a convenient target of criticism for the Conservative leader. The Foreign Secretary remarked at the Labour conference that 'unless government is on your side you end up on your own'. David Cameron fiercely attacked Labour for promoting the idea that a bigger state is the solution; where are the families, the communities, the neighbourhoods, asked Cameron rhetorically? The question touches one of the most significant philosophical underpinnings of the social democratic and conservative ideologies.
While the former attaches great importance to the traditional institutions mentioned above, the latter is first and foremost concerned with relationship between the individual and the state. Nevertheless, David Cameron gave mixed signals in this issue: in the same breath, he declared that 'we are the party of the National Health Service in Britain today' and went on to enumerate a Conservative government's programs from creating 3,000 new schools to spending more money on defence. As he put it: the central task of a future Conservative government would be as radical social reform as Margaret Thatcher's economic reform was. The conclusion is that the numbers of neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party add up: the promises of more and improved social services cannot simply be financed by the current revenues, though one of the Conservative Party ideologues, Oliver Letwin (similarly to Alastair Darling) promised that 'the changes would not cost more money even in the short term.'
If the conference of the Labour Party was centred around the notion of 'experience', that of the Conservatives emphasised 'responsibility'. David Cameron drew a distinction between the Conservative concept of freedom, which carries a heavy dose of responsibility to others, and libertarianism, which does not. 'Responsibility' should permeate society from top to bottom and, as governing force, the Conservative Party would start implementing responsibility by stopping borrowing, keeping spending under control, reviewing all spending programs, and reforming inefficient public services. On a personal level, a Conservative Government would 'end welfare as we know it' (Bill Clinton) by ending the 'something for nothing culture'.
The Labour Party conference was centred around personalities to a large extent at a time when the current challenges are more about politics and policy. An underlying issue at the Labour conference was a fight for the soul of the party: 1) it can return to its leftist traditions with the trade unions gaining power at the expense of the parliamentary Labour Party and the constituencies; 2) it can continue the Blair-Brown politics of the 'third way', i.e., step-by-step reforms and staying in the middle of the political spectrum; or 3) can move towards more free-market reform (as advocated by, among others, Alan Milburn) - this latter one is the most unlikely in the present economic circumstances. On a personal level, Gordon Brown seems to have solidified his position, at least until next summer, though calls for his replacement might get louder if Labour loses the next by-election in Glenothes in Scotland.
The main task of the Conservative Party would be to remain sober about its chances at the next general election. The leadership should realise that a part of their support comes from disgruntled former Labour voters which might evaporate very quickly if David Cameron returned to traditional Conservative policies which earned the 'nasty party' nickname for the Tories in the 1990s. The best chance seems to be the cautious, middle-of-the-road policy around social services and the quality of life (green issues) which was promoted at the Party Conference in Birmingham.