PARTY conferences used to be the crucial policy- making forum where delegates thrashed out their differences in no-holds-barred debates. Now they are seen more as stage-managed rallies where leaders can strut their stuff.
That doesn’t mean they are not important, though.
This year, each of the three main UK party leaders faced a tough test as they headed to conference.
Nick Clegg had to find something to be positive about despite the Liberal Democrats’ appalling poll ratings, Ed Miliband needed an image overhaul and the Prime Minister had to offer some hope in austere times at the same time as keeping the London mayor under control.
It may still be two-and-a-half years to the general election, but these were important challenges. And it looks as if it is Mr Miliband who has emerged as the biggest winner of the 2012 conference season. He boldly stole the “One Nation” label from the Tories and his 65-minute speech without notes was hailed as a success by even right-wing commentators.
The Tories’ behaviour made it easier for Mr Miliband to push them off the centre ground. Chancellor George Osborne’s “we’re all in it together” mantra – never particularly convincing – has been treated with scorn since he cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p. And chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s “pleb” row with the Downing Street police officers seriously damaged the party’s efforts to present itself as modern and compassionate.
As Mr Miliband made his speech in Manchester, radical Tory writer Philip Blond tweeted that the Tory leadership “should be worried”. Tim Montgomerie, of the Conservative Home website, gave it ten out of ten for presentation, nine out of ten for his “One Nation” theme and “three out of ten for telling us what he would do”.
This far out from the next election, Labour cannot be expected to produce a detailed manifesto. But complaints the speech was “policy free” were wide of the mark. Mr Miliband repeated his pledge to repeal the Tory-Lib Dem NHS reforms, set out new plans to ensure “gold standard” qualifications for people not going to university and stressed the need for fairer taxation.
The speech went a long way to tackling the Labour leader’s image problems. Beforehand, a Tory- commissioned poll found 73 per cent did not think Mr Miliband had what it took to be prime minister. But in another poll after the speech, that figure had shrunk to 34 per cent.
The number of people who view him as “statesmanlike” leapt from 18 per cent to 34 per cent, and nearly 30 per cent said they were more likely to vote Labour.
The Lib Dem conference in Brighton was overshadowed by Mr Clegg’s pre-conference apology over tuition fees, quickly turned into a catchy song. His “sorry” might reasonably be seen as a little late and it was significantly an apology for making the pledge, not for breaking it – which most of the party’s disillusioned voters might have preferred.
Mr Cameron was not making any apologies in his conference speech, opting instead for a sombre warning that unless hard choices are faced “Britain may not be in the future what it has been in the past” and then defending his government’s controversial policies on welfare cuts, NHS reform and school academies.
He was keen to stress that although he leads a coalition government, he is delivering on Conservative values.
It did not help Mr Cameron that his speech came in the wake of more bad economic news, with the International Monetary Fund downgrading its predictions for the UK, and the day after London Mayor Boris Johnson had taken conference by storm and called for a further cut in the top rate of income tax.
At a fringe meeting at the Labour conference, panel members were asked what the party had to do to win in 2015 and one speaker answered “not much” – on the grounds the coalition is doing so badly.
But despite Mr Miliband’s impressive performance, Labour cannot be complacent as the election approaches.
The One Nation theme is a promising banner under which to fight and an aspiration the coalition parties will find it increasingly difficult to identify themselves with.
But Mr Miliband needs to build on his conference triumph and keep up the momentum if he is going to lead Labour to victory.
Scotland low on conference agendas
Despite the looming referendum and the UK parties’ determination to defeat independence, Scotland did not get much prominence on the big stage at any of the conferences.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont used her speech in Manchester to defend herself against the SNP’s jibes that she was a Tory for calling into question Scotland’s free public services such as tuition fees and personal care.
In his speech at the Tory conference in Birmingham, David Cameron took a dig at Alex Salmond over the Union flag at the Olympics and added: “I’m going to see him on Monday to sort out that referendum”.
But Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson received the most headlines with her controversial claim that only 12 per cent of Scots are putting more into the economy than they are getting out. The SNP accused her of insulting Scots by suggesting that almost 90 per cent did not contribute to the country’s wealth.