The annual political party conferences are usually a staid affair, hotly anticipated by almost no-one (except journalists and politics geeks).
This year however was different. Rather than representing slightly contrasting flavours of vanilla (or promising lots of candyfloss but not much meat), this time the main political parties offered two radically different – yet credible – visions of the future. This matters, because we are at something of a crossroads as a nation, partly thanks to the vote-which-shall-not-be-named, and partly thanks to the political sea change that has taken place of late, in which public opinion seems to have soured towards the austerity agenda.
So, what did each party have to offer?
In the Blue Corner: The Dancing Queen
In what looked like a bid to out-clown her political nemesis, Boris Johnson, Theresa May came onto the stage doing her signature dance (the ‘Maybot’?) to the soundtrack of Abba’s Dancing Queen.
What followed was an appeal to neither the many nor the few, but to the ‘hard working people’ instead – drawing a distinction between her party and the opposition, perhaps in response to recent criticisms that May’s bid for the centre ground has left the Conservatives sounding too much like ‘Labour lite’.
That said, a lot of the policy announcements were in the spirit of fiscal belt-loosening and public spending – a policy direction not taken by the Conservatives since before the time of Margaret Thatcher.
Key announcements: housing, health & social care
May revealed that the government would be lifting the cap on borrowing for local councils to enable them to fund increased housebuilding – a change that local authorities and industry voices have long been calling for. She also pledged to support earlier cancer diagnoses and increased investment in new scanning technology, and confirmed that the fuel duty freeze will continue for another year.
Audiences welcomed the news that all combustible cladding is to be banned on new residential buildings, schools and hospitals over 60ft high, and that there will be £240m in extra social care funding to facilitate more care in the community for the elderly.
Let waiting staff keep tips & crack down on well-off drug users
Other, smaller announcements from earlier in the week included the promise to ban restaurants from confiscating tips and service charges from waiting staff, and a crackdown on ‘middle class’ drug users. Some critics took these ideas as a sign that the government’s plans for the coming year are thin on content (not to mention imagination). However, we are still yet to see the Chancellor’s Autumn Budget, which many believe will break form and deliver an alternative to ‘business as usual’.
Brexit: the carrot and stick approach
On the subject of Brexit, May was keen to stress the importance of compromise and moving forward – subtly hinting that an overly perfectionistic pursuit of the ‘ideal’ Brexit would result in the UK never leaving the EU, which would in turn ‘cheat’ those who voted for it out of their democratically-mandated wishes.
‘The end of austerity’ was the biggest carrot dangled before the nation as a reward for backing her version of Brexit (the stick presumably being ‘more austerity’ if the Chequers plan is thwarted at the critical juncture when the commons vote on Brexit is held). Her justification for this was that people deserve to feel the benefits of the so-called ‘Brexit dividend’ as soon as possible after we leave. Whether this dividend is more conceptual than concrete however remains to be seen.
The overall verdict was that May’s performance defied critics who expected to see a beleaguered and defeated prime minister who has suffered a series of humiliating diplomatic defeats in her time trying to negotiate a way forward for Britain as we leave the EU. It wasn’t a showstopper, but it was surprisingly better than expected, and substantially better than last year’s speech, which was blighted by ‘coughgate’ and a slogan farcically falling off the wall behind May’s head as she spoke…
In the Red Corner: ‘All Options are on the Table’
In the days of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and later Ed Milliband, we’d come to expect fierce rhetoric from Labour towards the Conservative party, which would then turn out to be backed up by much milder policy proposals upon closer inspection.
Not any more. Now the Corbyn-McDonnell dynamic duo are at the helm, big changes are being promised in both word and deed, and it’s making a lot of people nervous and excited in equal measure – depending on which side of the political divide they fall.
Key announcements: sharing the spoils of British labour
The headline policy proposal announced by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was an employee share ownership scheme to be made compulsory for all private companies in Britain. Companies would have to set aside 1% of their shares each year to be distributed to workers, up to a maximum of 10% of the total shares in the company. This idea builds on the success of co-operatively owned companies like john Lewis, and the fact that several studies have shown that giving workers a stake in the companies that employ them can boost motivation, productivity and staff retention. Whether a one-size-fits-all approach to boosting employee enfranchisement is the best approach however (as opposed to making the scheme voluntary and offering generous tax-incentives for take-up, and having different rules for small, unlisted companies vs. large public ones) needs further scrutiny.
Water, water everywhere… and not a drop to avoid public ownership
Traditional left-wing policymaking surfaced in the promise that the first industry to be nationalised under a left-wing government would be the water industry – whereby surpluses would be reinvested to provide better infrastructure, or to bring down bills. Next would come the nationalisation of rail, mail and energy. However, while McDonnell called for the end of ‘profiteering in dividends, vast executive salaries, and excessive interest payments’, the logistical barriers to bringing privatised assets into public ownership were not addressed. The legal – and possibly diplomatic, given that many public services are now run by companies owned by foreign governments – quagmire this could lead the government into might mean that the fulfilment of these promises take far longer than the promises for swift and sweeping change suggest. Still, public backing for nationalisation of essential services remains at an all-time high, and, like with Brexit, holding fast to principles might prove more important to British voters the desire to avoid a colossal administrative and international relations headache.
Brexit: keeping an open mind
On the subject of Brexit, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer shocked and apparently delighted audiences by revealing that, when it comes to securing the best possible Brexit deal, ‘all options are on the table’ (the implication being that opting to remain in the EU in the event of a breakdown of talks and a chaotic no-deal scenario had not been ruled out). Speculation has long been rife over Mr Corbyn’s true stance on Brexit, who was purported to have backed remain in June 2016, but who many suspect is a closet leaver, given his reluctance to give a straight answer when directly challenged on his thoughts on the country’s future relationship with the EU. By clarifying that continuing to remain in the EU until a good deal for Britain has been hashed out and agreed, Mr. Starmer drew a clear distinction between his own party’s Brexit policy and that of the opposition, whose ‘leave at all costs’ approach has been many giving business owners nationwide the jitters.
Pleasing all the people, all the time?
Jeremy Corbyn made an uncharacteristic appeal to the older generation with a promise to keep in place the state pension triple-lock, winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for pensioners – presumably in response to figures showing that older voters have been slow to warm to the Labour leader. Corbyn described these non-means-tested benefits as the government’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to the older generations who ‘built this country’. Not wanting younger voters to feel left out, he also pledged to roll out free childcare for 2-, 3- and 4-year olds of up to 30 hours a week – a policy that would likely prove popular, but raise questions over the government’s ability to fund these provisions.
Largely the response to the Labour party conference has been positive on the left, and, as MoneyWeek editor-in-chief Merryn Somerset-Webb pointed out, surprisingly ‘uncritical’ on the right. The Independent remarked that Mr. Corbyn came across as ‘prime ministerial’ for the first time ever, and while the anti-Semitism row and the leader’s fractious relationship with the ‘mainstream media’ weren’t fully put to rest, fears that these issues would overshadow everything else were not realised.
Conservative vs. Labour: A meaningful difference
Overall, we are seeing a return to the prospect of truly transformative and large-scale policy making – with the shift to the left on the part of Labour forcing the right-wing incumbents to up their ideological game. It’s no longer enough to tell voters why the opposition would mess everything up. The Brexit vote, and the subsequent 2017 general election that resulted in a Conservative-DUP coalition government, revealed mass dissatisfaction with the status quo. The pressure is now on for politicians to stop with the mud-slinging, and show voters why voting for them will mean a better future and a better country. Meaningful choice between two different visions for the future is back on the menu – and that can only be a good thing for British democracy.