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Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool
“So what did we learn from this Autumn’s party conferences? The answer is not much.
Each of the main party gatherings was dull and rather poorly attended. The number of delegates in Manchester for the Conservative conference was the lowest I can recall, a combination of loss of members (partly the UKIP factor); the ever-growing pre-eminence of exhibitors and the cost of attending. £700 for four days to watch Grant Shapps et al. read from the autocue anyone?
This is not a lament for a golden age of conferences. The Conservatives’ event was never a decision-making forum; Labour’s was still an opportunity for entertaining fratricide only three years ago and the Liberal Democrats do, shock, horror, still have votes to determine their policies – although their most cast-iron promises may of course be subject to very sudden change, to the tune of £27,000, plus interest, over a lifetime.
The Conservatives’ insisted that ‘profit, wealth creation, tax cuts and enterprise … are not dirty words’, to the surprise of no-one. Yet the Conservatives will retain the (admittedly modest) regulatory frameworks for business put in place by Labour governments from 1997 to 2010. The Conservative message until the next election will not be about the merits of unbridled capitalism, but rather about steady economic recovery – unglamorous but sometimes effective. It worked for the Conservatives under John Major in 1992.
At conference, the Conservative message – that deficit-cutting and growth can be achieved concurrently – began to solidify as the election platform. The biggest barrier to an outright Conservative victory may not be an improving economy, but the electoral arithmetic. The party’s failure to achieve boundary changes – courtesy of Liberal Democrat pique over non-movement on Lords’ reform – may yet be costly. It will on average take substantially more votes to elect a Conservative MP than a Labour counterpart.
Amidst much banality and endless mantras about ‘hardworking people and families’, there were a few interesting policies. The Conservatives moved further towards workfare, without answering the question of what happens when people refuse to work for nothing. Are they literally left to starve? Labour’s ‘we’re on your side’ approach extended even to the politically ‘unborn’. Ed Miliband promised 16 and 17 year olds the vote, welcoming them into ‘our democracy’ – the same democracy in which the vast bulk of the electorate oppose any reduction of the voting age.
Miliband’s move came less than four years after the Youth Citizenship Commission (which I chaired) established by the previous Labour government declined to recommend such a lowering – not least because many 16 and 17 year olds were not convinced. Listening to Ed explain why those not adult enough to buy cigarettes, alcohol or fireworks, watch certain films, sit on a jury, marry without parental permission, see frontline service in the forces, drive a car (at 16) or even leave school (from 2015) should decide the nation’s future could be more interesting than anything we heard during the last three weeks.”
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