Party conferences this year have an eye on the general elections, which are just around the corner.
Unless you are a fully committed political party member, it is easy in most years to remain detached from the UK party conferences, which take place in September and October. They are widely covered by press and radio and television, but, to be frank , it is only rarely that they are truly newsworthy.
The situation this year is a bit different. Under British electoral rules, there has to be a general election in about six months’ time at the latest, and inevitably, therefore, the party conferences are being seen as the opening of the election campaign. Inevitably, too, media coverage is focused even more than usual on personalities.
Many commentators believe that the Labour Party will lose the election (after nearly 12 years in power), and that Gordon Brown does not have the charisma to lead it out of defeat. On the other side of the political fence, many doubts are expressed about what the Conservative Party really stands for, and about the personality of its leader, David Cameron.
Obviously, the main background to the conferences and the discussion at and arising from them is the international financial crisis. It is the main background, but not the only one.
The Murdoch press threw a spanner in the political works at the time of Gordon Brown’s conference speech when The Sun announced that it would be supporting the Conservatives rather than Labour. Then voters in the Irish Republic voted “yes” in a referendum on the European Union Lisbon Treaty — reversing their decision in an earlier referendum. That has fanned the flames of hostility to the E.U. that are always smouldering within Conservative Party ranks, and it has provoked many members of that party to put pressure on David Cameron to promise a referendum, if the party comes to power, whether or not the Lisbon Treaty has by that time been ratified.
The idea that Britain might hold a referendum after ratification, and that the result might be rejection of the treaty, would in practice put Britain in an unhappy position among its European neighbours, and would certainly reduce the influence of the U.K. within the E.U. Undoubtedly David Cameron is aware of this, but hostility to Europe is strong among many people whose judgment is based on a kind of atavistic little Englandism, and who have little knowledge of how the E.U. actually works. That ignorance is encouraged by certain sections of the press. Few politicians (from either of the two main parties) have ever dared to challenge the ignorance when talking to the public.
The exception to this is the Liberal Democrat Party, which has been consistently pro-E.U., and has consistently said so.
The attitude of the Lib Dems may well be more significant in the period between now and the general election than it has traditionally been, not because of views on the E.U. but because the political landscape as a whole has been changing in a major way. Opinion polls have been fluctuating, some suggesting that the Lib Dems might hold the balance after the election. It is far too early to make any sensible prediction, but it is worth noting that Vince Cable, the Lib Dem finance spokesman, is widely respected for his ability, and his judgment over the international financial situation.
When the party conferences are finished (the Liberal Democrats and Labour have had theirs, the Conservatives will have finished theirs by the time this Letter appears) I suspect the focus of voters’ attention will be rather different from that of the conference participants.
As the effects of the financial crisis continue to be felt, people will be worried about jobs and pensions, about the state of the public services, such as healthcare and education, and about the regulation of the banks and other financial institutions to ensure that they do not make again the bad decisions which have had such disastrous consequences.
Members of the public are not fools, and they know that things have to be paid for. My feeling is that, although no one is keen to pay more tax, most of us recognise that fair taxation is a better way of paying than running up ever increasing debt.
I suspect that any politician willing to say the unsayable — regardless of how the commentators reacted — might, just might, win support. Perhaps it is too much to expect, but given the opprobrium which is attached to politicians because of the expenses scandal, some of them might think it worth a try.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org