For my sins I have just spent the last month touring the country to visit the different political parties at their annual conferences.
My tour has taken me to Brighton for the Liberal Democrats, Liverpool for Labour, Birmingham for the Tories and Glasgow for the SNP.
For a politico like me it’s been fascinating to watch the different parties outline their political priorities and advance their arguments. I have probably learned more in the last four weeks than I have in the months since the 2015 General Election.
I’m clearer now about the challenges that Labour face in its attempts to return to government. I understand better the mood of the country, the direction of the government and the motives of the parties left vying to be the country’s alternative, now that Labour has twice left the stage open for other centre-left parties to grapple with the public credibility they so easily wish to give up.
I saw things I didn’t expect to see. I was left depressed and confused in equal measure. I’ve long believed Labour needs to get out of its comfort zone in order to be appealing to the masses once more, but after this past month I’ve never been more sure that in order to win, in order to have a place in contemporary political discourse, there has to be much less focus on austerity and much more focus on aspiration.
Here is a breakdown of everything I have taken from party conference season 2016, in no particular order:
The Conservative party is more representative of the country. Walking around their conference centre it was noticeable how many young people were in attendance. I sat in fringe event after fringe event where someone under 30 years of age would stand up and say, “if my parents knew I was a Tory party member and at the Tory party conference they would disown me...but.” This would then be followed by reference to how the Conservative Party’s right to buy scheme has allowed them to buy their own home or how they have ambition to earn lots of money but don’t want to be subject to “mansion” taxes or “wealth” taxes if they are successful but Labour is in power.
Labour no longer has a monopoly on the ethnic minority vote, nor on the vote of those with disabilities or people from the LGBT community. Walking through the corridors of the Birmingham ICC, you begin to see that third and fourth generation minority voters are Tories and proud.
The Liberal Democrats are buoyant. Clegg managed to keep his party together for five years during the coalition (some feat when you consider that Corbyn can’t keep Labour together for five minutes in opposition) and even after near oblivion last year, they are united in their belief that they can win on the ground in local elections to come. They are targeting places like Liverpool, Cambridge and Newcastle and fancy their chances.
What is also clear is that the Lib Dems are streaks ahead of the other parties in how they are coping with Brexit. They have committees set up to look in detail at what the ‘ask’ should be in each area. They have designated individuals leading on certain areas of social policy.
Every other fringe at the Tory conference was on housing. This is because there is a strong belief from Theresa May and Phillip Hammond that they can stamp on Labour territory, as Thatcher did with right to buy, by commissioning the building of more social housing. If the Tories build more social housing, what is Labour’s next argument?
The SNP don’t talk about Labour. They know Scotland is a deeply opposed to the Conservatives so they focus their fire entirely on them. Their hope is that the more they do this, the more they appear to the public as the natural opposition. Labour is shut out of the debate entirely.
The SNP used the oil price as their rationale for independence last time. That tanked, so they don’t talk about it anymore. Instead they say the reason for a new referendum is because of the Brexit result. However Scotland didn’t vote “overwhelmingly” for EU membership. Turnout was low, particularly in places like Glasgow where immigration levels are high. The new argument from Nicola Sturgeon for why a referendum is now a “must” is weak. The SNP secretly know this. It will be a massive political gamble in the next 24 months to go for a second independence referendum that polls show the Scottish public won’t support. If the SNP exist to make Scotland independent, but the people of Scotland twice tell them they don’t want to be, who is around to represent the views of the Scottish electorate? Apathy is the only winner.
Prejudice from the Tories is never more than a Gin and Tonic away from rearing it’s ugly head. Scratch the surface in a bar or restaurant and their views on a range of things from disability to homosexuality is not in keeping with the tolerant public persona they like to project. They have far more in common with Ukip members and councillors than they do with Labour politicians.
Labour is irrelevant. Policy-wise they are no where close to even beginning the debates about the issues that matter to the public.
The leadership contest was divisive and unnecessary, but it did show up a few home truths about where Corbyn is and isn’t popular. For instance he lost to Owen Smith in Scotland, London and among under 30s. He beat Owen among women and the over 55s. If Corbyn wants to appeal to the country, he will need to work harder in these demographics and clearly the flawed notion that his appeal to young people is far reaching is little more than a myth. Who knew young people didn’t fancy a life working down the mines he wants to reopen eh?
Labour MPs are talking a different language to the leadership. This is most notable on immigration. Backbench MP after backbench MP is advocating a change in position on freedom of movement. It’s not only the right direction of travel to alleviate pressure on public services, but it’s electorally expedient too. It’s a game changer in the fight against the SNP in places like Glasgow as well as appealing to southern marginals where the party has haemorrhaged votes to Ukip.
MPs will be furious with Corbyn’s cabinet. The top jobs have gone to MPs who barely get out of zone 1 in London. The Islington intelligencia critique of Labour shows no sign of being alleviated as the cabinet is packed with London MPs who are far removed from the realities of the rest of Britain.
Corbyn isn’t interested in uniting the party. The talk of unity is just that, talk. When you speak to his advisors or share lifts with his key staff, you hear quite clearly their views on the rest of the party; it’s “us versus them”. They know this is code for electoral annihilation and they know the opinion polls are right. The difference is, they don’t care.
Party conferences are low key affairs now. It’s clear that many organisations and charities that once flocked to the fringe events and exhibition stands have given up on the opposition parties and are focused entirely on the Tories. Conventional wisdom is that the Tories will rule for over a decade. It’s hard to find concrete evidence to disprove that.
Theresa May lacks a mandate and will never quell the anti-EU Tory beast. This will besiege her premiership and she may need an early general election to get some more supporters into the chamber or she’ll be held to ransom by the Tory rebels on all domestic policy reforms.
Ukip who? Barely mentioned. Barely taken seriously. Tories confident that Ukip voters who left them over Europe have come home following the referendum. For Labour, I’m not even sure they are interested in winning them back because they paid scant regard to the reasons why they have taken their votes.
Is British politics crying out for a new political party? Social democrats? Progressives? New Labour? I don’t know, but it’s clear that there are many people who don’t believe a one party state in either Scotland or the rest of the UK is particularly good for democracy and accountability.
Whether you like these lessons learned or not, whether you believe them or not, the warning signs are there. It’s about time Labour listened, did their homework and figured out how to beat their opponents.
British politics right now is fascinating, unpredictable, but also very much on the road to ruin. It needs a Labour opposition in the House of Commons and willing to listen and change, put itself at the service of the public and start listening to the warning signs.