A number of media commentators (for example, Danny Finkelstein today in the Times) have observed that conference season seems to be about promises not challenges. Although Nick Clegg has little but more pain to offer his Party, Labour and Conservative politicians have generally plumped for a crowd-pleasing attitude to both their party faithful and the half-listening public.
Speeches have adopted the reassuring tone of self-certainty and disdain for opponents while free school lunches, tax breaks for spouses, energy and fuel tax freezes have been among the examples of the largesse on offer to voters. There is an inverse relationship between specificity and sacrifice – the promises are concrete while the sense that there is still tough stuff ahead is vaguely asserted with the implication that the pain will fall only on the undeserved (whether they be energy company fat cats or the long term unemployed).
Yet, any objective observer of the position of the UK would say that in both the short and longer term citizens will have to make demanding adaptations if we are to meet challenges such as global competition, austerity, population ageing and climate change.
The argument of my RSA annual lecture in 2007 – that we face a widening gap between the aspirations we have for a better society and the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and acting place us – is, if anything, more obvious today than six years ago.
Its pointless blaming the individuals: Political insecurity, electoral competition and public exhaustion are key factors at work in this retreat to populism. All the party leaders have become used to questions hanging over their own leadership and their Party’s prospects at the next election. They simply lack the authority to challenge their Party. With some justification each party thinks it will lose out if it doesn’t offer the voters the best bag of goodies. Meanwhile the public’s tolerance for bad news has been eroded by years of economic gloom and falling living standards.
It is very easy to be pious and superior when judging politicians. As a failed Prime Ministerial speech writer I am only too aware of how hard it is to translate rigour and subtlety into a viable and engaging political message. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be deeply underwhelmed by the tone of this conference season.
There has been the lack of a credible story about the longer term challenges and choices facing Britain. Thatcher saw the liberation of the individual, and a shift of influence over human affairs from state to market as key to the future. For Blair the task was modernisation. Ideological narrowness in the former and the reductiveness of the latter are valid criticisms, but at least both were based on a clear analysis of what needed to change. Today’s respective top line offers – shifting power from big business and abolishing the deficit – may be perfectly respectable steps on a road, but a road to where?
Once again, but this time particularly acutely, the narratives on offer have a missing middle. At the top are value assertions about fairness, freedom, parenthood and apple pie; at the base, specific policy commitments. Missing is an account of the underlying intellectual analysis and political strategy which connects the two. Miliband tries harder, with ideas like pre-distribution and responsible capitalism, but still when the chips are down tactics and opportunism trump strategy and clarity.
Worse still, is the absence of the public as subjects rather than the objects of politics. History shows that agency matters – particularly in mature democracies. As I have argued before, that’s why the Labour’s statist grand plan to abolish child poverty achieved less public engagement that the Mayor of Oklahoma’s folksy fat busting. I defended the Big Society for longer than most of David Cameron’s allies because there was at least the potential for a credible story of reciprocity between change in Government and complementary changes in public norms and expectations.
At question is the whole paradigm of national politics. The contrast with local government is telling. Just about every council leader I speak to knows that engaging citizens as partners (both through their institutions and as individuals) is vital to economic renewal and managing the gap between demands and resources.
‘We’re in this together’ was crafted as a statement about fairness. It would be more powerful as a message about how change occurs in society and the importance to social and economic renewal of shared understanding and commitment. Our prospects depend on the ability of us, as citizens, to adapt and develop. The task of politicians (in Government and opposition) is – through challenge and support – to help us be the people we need to be to create the future we say we want.
We need our politicians to be personal trainers edging us towards greater fitness through being clear, demanding and encouraging. Instead, as a class, they feel more like slightly creepy relatives wheedling their way into our affections by telling tall tales and slipping us sweets that we enjoy at the time, but may end up making us feel sick.
Choosing the subject for party conference fringe meetings is never easy. The RSA only does one big event at each of the main party gatherings so it is important that we choose something which will be both topical and distinctive. The problem is that the topic has to be chosen in spring but the events are in early autumn.
Three years ago we did pretty well. The issue was public opinion and how politicians should respond when most people are appparerntly misinformed or hold contradictory positions. It might not have been particularly topical but it was interesting enough to pack out the venues and provoke interesting debate. The year before last was even better. We made the judgment that spending cuts – and the politicians’ lack of candour about their necessity – would be the big issue even before it had really moved centre stage with the press and public. We got it right and many people commented on how we had chosen the emerging hot topic.
Last year it was as more mixed picture. Ironically, the events on the Big Society were packed and lively at Labour and LibDem conference, where in both cases sceptical audiences were largely talked round by more enthusiastic panels, but it was a bit flat in Birmingham with the Conservatives.
Partly this reflected the ambivalence of Tory activists about the concept but it was also because our Big Society event was just one of many others. In fact it was difficult to find an event which didn’t contrive in some way to link to the Big Society: Big Society transport, Big Society business, Big Society nuclear deterrence (only one of these is made up).
This year we are taking another gamble. The topic is: The Rise of the disaffected Citizen: what happens when mainstream politicians fail to deliver prosperity and security? The gamble is that come the autumn, in the face of a weak economy, falling living standards and declining public services, the public will be getting increasingly restless. Although the Conservatives benefitted from the LibDems’ meltdown and Labour’s southern discomfort in the local elections, none of the major UK parties or their leaders seems to be held in great esteem right now. This could get a whole lot worse.
As Philip Stevens writes in his morning’s FT, across Europe the beneficiary of centre right or centre left governments pursuing austerity policies has not been their traditional opposition but the nationalists or extreme right. The SNP offers a very moderate and progressive form of nationalism but its stunning performance shows that ‘nothing to do with Westminster’ may be a potent label for new political movements.
While politicians, activists and the press tend to present conference season as a competition between the three parties, it may be that the watching public see it as confirmation that the political establishment is out of touch. The fact that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband may be having to shore up declining confidence in their own parties, while David Cameron may feel he has to speak to Tory traditionalists tired of compromise with their Coalition could mean that leaders’ speeches – which need urgently to connect with the public – are instead focussed on the party faithful.
Anyway – that’s the theory. If it turns out that the Coalition or the opposition have a surge in public enthusiasm we may look pretty silly. Then it will be up to me to say’ sorry’. (And, ‘yes’, I have contrived this ending to allow me to use a terrible pun – which will be recognised only by fans of post war musicals – in the title).
So conference season is over, at least for the RSA. We had another good turnout with the Conservatives yesterday evening, which means each event has attracted over 150 people. After years and years of party conferences I can’t help feeling that doing one big event is infinitely preferable to putting on the kinds of programmes other think tanks host. A game to play when browsing through the fringe guide is to identify the most boring fringe meeting and the one which the think tank has most obviously just done just for the sponsorship: ‘Plastic recycling; time for a new paradigm’, ‘light transit rail systems; thinking out of the box’. When they retire the people who plan fringe meetings could get jobs choosing the name of hairdressers or fish and chip shops prone as they are to clunking puns: ‘Let’s go Higher baby; the case for university expansion’ or ‘Who cares wins; why nursing homes need a new deal’. Finally, there are the titles that imply the fringe meeting will change the world but betray their inevitably blandness: ‘Children; they are our future’, ‘Climate catastrophe – isn’t it time to act?’.
The Conservative delegates were a very normal and mixed bunch, which is very different from the people I met at my first Tory conference in 1994. There was the inevitable contribution from a breathless, young, free market enthusiastic asking why the Conservatives wouldn’t nationalise the NHS. But this, and Peter Hitchens’ attack on Cameron, the BBC and the liberal elite, were greeted with minimal enthusiasm. Instead it was an earnest debate in which most of the questions would have come just as easily from the delegates at either of the other conferences. The attack on Labour seemed rather muted, mainly focussing on Government bureaucracy and the Michael Gove line that while Tony Blair was trying to do the right thing, Gordon Brown has abandoned reform.
Until a few days ago it might have seemed that the Conservatives didn’t need to articulate much of a critique of Labour so deep was the evidence already of disenchantment. But just as happened last year conference season is seeing a change in the political weather. Labour is looking decisive over the banking crisis and, whatever their disagreements about the detail, the Conservatives aren’t articulating a coherent alternative. Given all the other things going on in the world it may be difficult for David Cameron’s team to get much traction with the several new policy documents they are planning to unveil this week.
The other Tory attack line is the assertion that Britain is broken. Conservatives say that this is not an alarmist argument but perhaps they should tell the Sun. The tabloid has a broken Britain fringe and has festooned Birmingham with lurid posters featuring a hooded teenager thrusting a knife towards the camera.
Evidence that the Conservatives have to deal with a new context is underlined by the same newspaper choosing today as its front page story an attack on Barclays bankers for taking an all-expenses break in Monte Carlo in the midst of the credit crunch. It is too early to say whether the current crisis will translate into a more general backlash against the values of financial capitalism but the fact that our most popular newspaper is now reviling bankers in a way previously reserved for loony left councils, benefit ‘scroungers’ or asylum seekers must be a sign of the times.
Off to Birmingham on Sunday for the third of our Party conference fringe meetings held in partnership with the World at One and IPSOS MORI. I’m hoping Conservative conference will prove to be less stressful for me than was Labour’s.
If I was a Conservative (cue malicious laughter among my remaining Labour friends) I would see next week as offering a big opportunity and a growing threat.
Given the polls and the general morale of the Party, Labour’s conference was a success. But it was a success secured against a modest objective – keeping the Party together and giving Gordon Brown more time to turn things round.
Achieving this was a necessity. If at a time like this the Party had looked like it was eating itself, the voters would have been unforgiving. As it is Labour has had a small poll bounce.
But what Labour really needed to have any hope of making the next election competitive was a conference that connected with the public at large.
They missed this target because they were never really aiming for it. Indeed, the expressions of satisfaction among Labour politicians and activists that they got through the week may grate with the growing number of people – worried about their homes, bills and jobs – who aren’t sure how they are going to get through the next few months.
This is the Tories’ opportunity. Their message can be simple: ‘Labour spent the week talking to itself, we will spend our week talking to the nation’.
Someone who saw David Cameron speak in recent days told me the absence of references to Labour was noticeable in a speech which was pitched directly to popular concerns about the state of both economy and society.
If the Conservatives can make this contrast with Labour, it will go a long way to cementing their lead.
The threat to David Cameron is a growing impatience with the lack of policy clarity. The time for speculative working papers and commissions is over; people want to know what the Conservatives’ first Queen’s Speech will contain.
Yet, the signs are that the Conservatives still see little purpose being served by policy elaboration. One bright special advisor to a Tory front bencher reports his frustration at rarely getting any response to the many policy ideas he puts forward. Lobby groups from business and NGOs find the Conservatives’ enthusiasm to share platforms and brands unmatched by the desire to discuss or resolve policy questions.
I have, for example, spoken to several business interests trying fruitlessly to get a handle on the Conservatives’ approach to public sector commissioning and contracting out.
Press commentators are now picking up on this. Mixing his metaphors one said to me ’next week we will be on waffle watch, warm words may go down well in the hall, but the refrain from the press corps will be ‘where’s the beef?’.
So the public want connection while the press and policy community want substance. A difficult balance but the kind of thing a party needs to achieve if it wants to move from effective opposition to Government-in-waiting.
I am writing this blog immediately after watching Gordon Brown’s speech (but posting it the next day) because I want to give a first impression before I let the views of everyone else influence me.
There were certainly some really good parts. The recognition of mistakes and more personal tone showed a man trying to connect. The fairness theme was sustained throughout. The attack on the Conservatives, while over-long, was powerful and made clear to the Party how it should go about campaigning. But overall?
As I said in yesterday’s blog I hoped the speech would be brave enough to speak for society as a whole rather than simply defending the PM and his record. I also hoped for passages when the tempo and tone would change and more of an argument would be developed. This would show confidence. The speech started promisingly in this regard but as long speeches tend to do it somewhat lost its way in the middle. Too many engineered applause lines gave a feel that was both disjointed and monotonous.
There were the usual assertions that no one in their right mind could possible disagree with:
“For too long we’ve developed only some of the talents of some people – but the modern route to social mobility is developing all the talents of all the people….”
And straw men erected:
“So when people say in these tough times there’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing higher to aim for, no great causes left worth fighting for… “
The attempts to pull the emotional heart strings – the ‘not just a number but a human story’ section – felt a bit laboured. And there seemed to be an attempt to borrow some of Barack Obama’s stardust with the assertion:
‘this job is not about me, it’s about you’
recalling the Democratic nominee’s assertion about the US election
‘this is not about me, it’s about you’
Also there seemed to be a plan to follow the American model of constant mini standing ovations – but apart from those who had clearly been primed to keep jumping up this didn’t really take off.
But I am being unfair. You see I have an admission to make. Even when I worked for him, I was alone among his fans in never really liking Tony Blair’s speeches.
It wasn’t just that I hardly ever got any lines in to them (OK, it was mainly that). For me an important aim of a speech is to close the distance between political leaders and the rest of us.
I yearned for argument and connection instead of simply declaiming. Sometimes TB did this, particularly when he was trying to persuade his Party of something with which it felt uncomfortable but generally his speeches were cleverly stitched together lists of quotable assertions.
Then again, I guess Gordon was trying to convince members of the Party and the public of something that many of them doubt – that he is the right man to be PM. In this the case was sustained throughout the speech. Only time will tell if it is an argument he can win.