The Conservative departure from Manchester marks the end of another conference season. Eighteen months out from a general election, the speeches and seminars of the three major political parties were important, as they needed to mark out the ground upon which Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will compete for your vote. In this they all broadly delivered, and all three leaders will be happy to arrive back in Westminster having set out, to greater or lesser degrees, their respective election stalls.
The LibDems continue to be in trouble. Since coming to power they have languished below 10 per cent in the polls, lost a third of their members and almost half of their local councillors. To maintain their position as a credible Parliamentary force beyond 2015, the party needed to re-articulate what it stands for, and scream tooth and nail about what it has delivered in Government.
In his speech, Clegg did a fairly good job. Battles with the “nasty” Tories were exposed, free school meals were announced and there was a reaffirmation of a commitment to “anchor” British politics “to the centre ground”. Whilst all this was hardly revelatory, given a Labour pivot to the Left and a Conservative shuffle towards UKIP on the Right, the political Centre has been left open. Clegg can win here and this conference speech marks the start of more public battles with the Tories as a means of differentiating the junior coalition partners to voters.
This conference speech was vital for Miliband, not least in terms of having to banish the ghosts from Labour past in the form of Damien McBride. Having successfully solidified his position and established the foundations of his campaign in an excellent speech last year, the Labour leader needed to start building policy and effectively articulate how his party would govern. Despite the positive media comment, the speech itself was lacklustre. The tagline “Britain can do better than this” was uninspiring and the overall content seemed disjointed and lacking in structure – not a great situation for a leader criticised for his charisma and oratory.
The centre-piece of his speech, a promise to place a cap on energy price rises, was a bold step designed to recapture the political initiative. Unfortunately, its announcement outside of any coherent policy structure led quickly to accusations that the move was gimmicky and perhaps un-workable. Here the Labour leader is in a tricky position. If the movement towards statutory market control is part of a broader Labour commitment to exert more central authority over business for the benefit of consumers, Miliband needs to convey this in a way that attracts voters yet at the same time neither damages industry nor harms the UK as a destination for investors – something that the electorate pay close attention to. This he did not do. Whilst the policy seems to have appealed in the short term, as the traditional post-conference bump in the opinion polls for Labour shows, serious questions remain about what a Miliband government would look like. As with all policy the devil is in the detail and, as a former Secretary of State for Energy, Miliband risks a serious dent in his creditability if his energy plan is found to be unworkable.
The Conservative Party Conference centred on the principle of “hardwork”. Earlier in the week the Chancellor George Osborne led the response to Labour claiming that deficit reduction was working, but not over. In his speech, the Prime Minister David Cameron continued the theme claiming that the “job was not finished”. For yet another year, the message rang out that “Plan A” was the right one, but that more time was needed, the difference this time was that the Tories had some evidence to back up the statement.
Aside from economics, a clear pitch to the Right in terms of the removal of benefits for immigrants and life-long claimants, and a prioritisation of education and training for the young unemployed, what was most notable about Cameron’s speech was what it lacked. Policy announcements were limited and vague and there was more a focus on attacking Labour than outlining specific plans for the future. The question will be whether “steady as she goes” and don’t “trust the other guys” is enough to convince voters to give the Conservatives a majority at the next election. The Tories have firmly nailed their colours to the mast in the shape of economic recovery. If this falters so will they.
To sum up, the major parties will resume play back in Westminster all broadly content with their leaders’ performances. Out of all three speeches, pride of place has to go to Mr Miliband who stood out in his articulation of something new and something different. The problem is that no one is quite sure exactly what it is yet.