Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
September, and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – and more immediately the party conference season – is upon us.
It has been quite a year: on the eve of the last conference season we were still in the days of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, and the ‘long-term economic plan’ was still rolling on. The EU referendum was another of those tricky situations, like forming a coalition, winning a majority in 2015 and getting the desired result in referendums in 2011 and 2014, that would see Cameron’s tactical brilliance shine again…
The conference season has started – although as Conservatives my readers still have a couple of weeks before it’s time to head to Birmingham. The TUC has finished its annual deliberations and, as you read this, Liberal Democrats across the country are putting their best pairs of sandals in their luggage, ready for the journey to Brighton. UKIP are assembling in Bournemouth at the same time, and the town will fill with jubilant kippers in Union Jack ties. And Labour are looking forward, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and trepidation, to coming together in Liverpool: at least that’s friendly territory for all of the bits of the party.
The tradition that the Conservative conference comes last has origins that are lost in time, but it has persisted through periods of Labour Government; it is not like the American tradition of the incumbent party having its convention second. The conferences are absurd and, as several ConservativeHome writers have pointed out, expensive for party members to attend: one of the first bits of Cameron modernisation to disappear into the mist was idea of making them less frequent. But I enjoy them. Although some of the details have changed since I wrote this in 2008, I still feel pretty much the same about the experience.
The very oddest conferences are those that take place around leadership transitions and major political-economic shocks, and I am long enough in the tooth to remember some of these – although not the most spectacular example, the Conservative conference of 1963 which, amid much plotting and finagling, turned into a kind of talent contest for the party leadership.
The conference season in 2007 was a roller-coaster ride. Labour arrived in Bournemouth in a cautiously optimistic mood, hoping for the best from Gordon Brown’s new leadership and wondering about the prospect of an imminent general election to renew the party’s mandate. By the end of the conference, people were giddy with excitement: polls bringing ever-better news were circulating around the bars and receptions, and the party was in some sort of fever dream. The Conservatives assembled the next week in Blackpool in what I recall as a grim, scratchy mood (as a visitor, it was the conference at which I felt least welcome). But by the end, the smiles were back on and – in another piece of Cameron/ Osborne tactical cleverness involving the deployment of the ‘dead cat’ of inheritance tax – Brown was frightened out of calling the general election.
A year later in Birmingham, there was an altogether more sober atmosphere (literally – an edict went out that the public consumption of champagne was banned as inappropriate in austere times). The collapse of Lehman Brothers took place during the Tory conference, and I recall the stunned, immediate grasp that something fundamental was changing
The conference season in 2001 took place under the shadow of the attacks on the United States, and everyone was affected by the horror of that event, and reminded every conference for several years by the stringent and highly visible security measures.
Some conferences take place in fantasy worlds. I first started going to Conservative conferences during the mid-1990s, when public support for the Major Government had collapsed, every set of local government elections brought catastrophic losses, and New Labour was regularly 20 points or more ahead in the polls. But the Conservative conferences were not grim occasions for their representatives. There is a limit as to how depressed a party can get while it is still in government, and there was also the human comfort of being with friendly and like-minded people, and reassuring each other that all was not lost.
The Labour conference in 2009 had a rather similar atmosphere. An interesting sub-category of unreal conferences is when a leader is in bad trouble with their parliamentary colleagues (or public opinion) while the party members are still enthusiastic and optimistic – or at least disguising their worries with ever more fervent declarations of loyalty to the leader. The Conservative conference in 2003 was the best example of this, as ‘Quiet Man’ Iain Duncan Smith ‘turned up the volume’ to a rapturous hall – just weeks before being overthrown by his MPs. Charles Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher had rather similar experiences in 2005 and 1990 respectively, and I well recall the sinking feeling among Labour colleagues after Ed Miliband’s poor podium speech in 2014. Labour will take the phenomenon to a whole new level in a few weeks.
But, as I did earlier this year, I find myself drawn back to thinking about the mid-1970s. Much contemporary history tells us that the second half of 1976 was an inflection point in British politics and political economy. Only the wildest contrarian historians of the future, I expect, would attempt to downplay the significance of 2016 in British history, although I think the extent to which the political world changed in 1976 has been greatly overdone.
It was still a dramatic year. The Prime Minister – an ingenious leader who ‘flew by the seat of his pants’ and had adopted the idea of a referendum on Europe for the sake of party unity – had resigned suddenly. He was replaced by the most solid, no-nonsense traditionalist among his Cabinet colleagues, Jim Callaghan, who combined a reassuring public image with some brutal skills in faction-fighting.
The Leader of the Opposition was just establishing her authority over a party that had surprised itself by choosing her a year earlier; some Shadow Cabinet colleagues were resentful, briefing against her, comparing her performance adversely to the Prime Minister, and expecting her to be toppled before long. But she already had the loyalty of a core group of ideological soul-mates and among party members in the country.
The economic background was exceptionally ominous. Sterling had started to fall steeply earlier in the year, and international confidence was waning (‘Goodbye, Great Britain’ said the Wall Street Journal); foreign trade and the public finances were deeply in deficit. There was a sense that we had gone over a cliff, and that nobody knew what sort of landing we would have. Denis Healey, the Chancellor, worried by a further downward lurch in sterling, turned around at Heathrow to return to the party conference in Blackpool. A largely uncomprehending or hostile Labour conference heard him report from the battlefront about his negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Jim Callaghan warned that it was not possible to use traditional tools such as public spending to get out of this crisis.
There were essentially two Labour Parties in Blackpool – the party of government and the increasingly left wing constituency parties. As Tony Benn – the latter’s representative within the former, put it to his diary:
“Summing up, the Conference has performed a valuable function by meeting during a sterling crisis… I think the Left has every reason to be highly delighted with the Conference but the Right is demoralised by it because all they have got is critical loyalty, no support for their policies.” (30 September 1976)
The crisis had started but not been resolved yet, although the nature of the choices and constraints was emerging. Back in Westminster in the autumn, the choices were shaping up. There was the Healey-Callaghan option of remaining plugged into the international financial system, and accepting the uncomfortable policy implications; Crosland’s position of questioning the terms, and the Benn option of a (socialist) siege economy with import controls. There could well be similarly gripping, substantive Cabinet debates in the near future about the form and implications of leaving the EU.
Much as I enjoy party conferences, I have a lot of sympathy for the early Cameron idea of making them a bit less frequent, as some years they are perfunctory and rather pointless. But there are some others in which they can be exciting political theatre and a venue in which parties grapple with some really deep, serious issues. In September and October 2016, both Labour and Conservative conferences are going to be edgy, strange experiences. Prepare the bars and buffets; I can hardly wait.