Overview: The 2011 UK Party Conferences

Photo credit: NCVO. Conservatives emphasised Britain's greatness and blamed external factors for insecurities.

Photo credit: NCVO. Conservatives emphasised Britain's greatness and blamed external factors for insecurities.

The annual party conferences, which were all held in the north of England this year, did not prove to be critical successes in terms of television viewership. Nevertheless, the aims of the parties were laid down with the expected amounts of pomp and hyperbole associated with such events.

The main focus of each conference was undoubtedly the economy, with representatives from each party assuring the British public that they understand the hard times many face. Further policy statements stemmed from other key areas of discussion: unemployment and the recent English riots.

In the end, Labour failed to establish itself as a viable alternative to a Conservative government that claims it is bound by global constraints. The Liberal Democrats, evoking a modicum of naïveté, tried to convince the country that things will improve soon.

Liverpool, 25-29th September
SUMMARY: Labourites may still be concerned about a policy vacuum, but Labour managed to present realistic strategies for the future of the country.

This was Ed Miliband’s second autumn conference as leader. Last time round, he was trying to shed his ‘Red Ed’ image. This year, he attempted to fully assert himself as a future prime minister. In the end, he had to shake off the ‘anti-business’ qualities the opposition have attributed to him.

It is clear Miliband is not the greatest orator, but the speech was not without its high points; the odd bit of humour pervaded the inspirational tone attendees seemed prepared to hear. When an audience member booed Blair, Miliband’s irritation was evident, but he missed the opportunity to assert his feelings and turn it to his advantage. He later said those that heckled ‘are no friends of mine’.

Miliband’s willingness to answer public questions candidly while on stage was a bold move, but the conference did not do much to improve his standing in general public opinion.


To the disappointment of many Labour supporters, much time was spent apologizing for the errors made in the previous government rather than emphasising its numerous successes. Ed Balls attempted to highlight the coalition government’s mistakes, but the effect of this effort was limited.

The standout idea was a possible reduction in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. Despite Labour’s previous promise to consider recommendations made in the Brown report prior to the 2010, many will associate fee increases with the current Coalition government. Whilst it may not be in the next manifesto, the notion of using ‘smart money’ on a graduate tax offered an interesting alternative.
Plans for a short-term cut in VAT may be an ideal solution for an economy approaching stagnation, but the punters and markets would have preferred more long-term proposals, and fewer stop-gap suggestions.

Television viewers were not treated well during the conference. Although the party can’t be blamed, a power cut during the leader’s speech left viewers without live coverage for a short period of time. Additionally, unlike the Lib Dems and Conservatives who had their party colours behind them at the lectern, Labour had a bright white backing, which made High Definition viewing exceptionally unbearable.

Miliband’s position was put under pressure when a shadow cabinet minister began to show signs of leadership. This time round it was Yvette Cooper, who impressed many with her powerful speech and the manner she carried herself throughout the conference. We almost forgot the detracting fact that she is married to Ed Balls.

Birmingham, 17-21st September

SUMMARY: Liberal Democrats feigned their separateness, even divorce, from their coalition partners, but their sincerity is questionable. Nick Clegg seeks to bring an end to party infighting and encourage cooperation to regain lost ground.

Nick Clegg had a tough task on his hands at this conference: keeping the party together. A rallying pep talk was required, so he focused on the ‘Liberal spirit’ of being able to overcome negative press and highlighted broader Liberal values. His speech warned of the unpredictability of the economy, but speculated what a terrible position we would be in if Labour were still in charge. Clegg also avoided placing blame on his coalition partners, something other Liberal Democrats found more difficult to do. Clegg was convinced the party could win back all the seats they lost at the May local elections and he even suggested it was possible to win more. Some may view him as delusional, while others may believe in his convictions.

‘Adversity tests the character of a party just as it tests any person.’
Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP

In direct opposition to the rhetoric spewed during the Conservative conference, Liberal Democrats stressed the importance of the Human Rights Act, even at a time when millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money was being spent on the attempted Dale Farm eviction. At the Tory conference Theresa May stressed the need to abandon the Act.
A summer school scheme for those starting secondary school was promised in an effort to help disadvantaged children with basic numeracy and literacy skills. Off the back of the riots, any effort to encourage youths to fulfil their potential, whilst also giving them something to do during the summer holidays, was viewed as a good thing. Critics likened this ‘summer school’ to boot camp.
In an effort to kick-start greater price competition, Chris Huhne spoke of giving Ofgem more powers over the big energy companies, whilst emphasizing the need to switch providers to get the best deal. Labour called for more radical reform, but Huhne offered few concrete proposals.

The party earnestly attempted to highlight what it has been doing well in government, but this was eclipsed by the controversial speech from party president Tim Farron. After that, more attention was paid to Miriam Clegg’s Topshop dress than much else. Still, some might say it was a step up from Samantha Cameron’s outfit.

Liberal Democrats are still a long way off from regaining their lost popularity, and they are even further away from achieving substantial power within government, with or without Nick Clegg. The party is adamant that they will end their ‘temporary marriage’ with the Conservatives at the end of the current government, which might result in years in the political wilderness after 2015. As Liberal Democrats are out of many other options at the moment, they are compelled to put on a face of unity.


Manchester, 2nd-5th October
SUMMARY: Conservatives stressed the need for tough leadership in hard times, and they proposed a few policy changes.

Whilst Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg addressed their party, David Cameron addressed the nation. Following on from last year’s ‘We’re in it together’ declaration, the thrust of this year’s conference stressed the new theme of a ‘Great’ Britain. Full of optimism, Cameron’s speech maintained an upbeat tone amid references to economic struggles, riots and the Libyan crisis. Enjoying the position of speaking in the last party conference of the year, Cameron was able to poke fun at statements made in other party conferences, while effectively formulating his attacks on Labour and Liberal Democrats. Delegates were unanimous in their support following Cameron’s speech, despite the fact that they did not appear particularly animated while he delivered it.

The Conservative Party’s reiteration of the validity of the current austerity plan came as no surprise, and there were no new temporary measures introduced that promised to help the economy. The freezing of council tax offered a reduction in real terms, but proved only a small step in improving the buying power of consumers. However, the Party pledged to underwrite loans to small businesses in an effort to stimulate growth. The Prime Minister also promised 400,000 new jobs and 200,000 affordable new homes.
Party Eurosceptics got some pleasure from the fight against benefit tourists, and from Liam Fox’s strong rhetoric against any E.U. armed forces. The more radical wanted referendums on remaining in the E.U, but were warned off by Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Predictably, Boris Johnson failed to toe party line and declared the exact opposite, before releasing a statement to clarify his support for David Cameron. Theresa May also put herself on a collision course with the Liberal Democrats over her plans to abolish the Human Rights Act.

The Conservatives claim the success of the Government will be based as much on international developments out of their control as those changes made domestically. Conservative representatives clearly acknowledge the need to reverse low levels of uncertainty and confidence in the economy. The Party is showing its strength of belief in its policies and its Cabinet ministers, and they seem to hope this confidence will trickle down to the public.

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