The last party conference season before the general election is underway with the Green Party completing theirs and Labour off to Manchester from the 21st September.
For the party leaderships it is a not particularly welcome break from normal national politics and their main concern is to get good media coverage for key speeches, especially that of the leader, and avoid damaging public conflicts so that the party seems united.
For the delegates, of course, it is all good fun and an opportunity to talk to like-minded people about the things they find interesting from party gossip to the details of key policies.
Labour delegates have reason to be optimistic with a slim but steady opinion poll lead that has survived the summer, even if Ed Miliband’s ratings remain poor.
Looking at Policy
They have also been through a comprehensive Policy Review involving the constituency and regional parties that has been generally harmonious.
When Manny Shinwell became Labour’s new Minister of Fuel and Power in 1945, he went to Labour HQ to look for the dossier that he assumed would be there on how to nationalise the coal industry; he found only one page of typed manuscript in a filing cabinet. At least a Labour Government in 2015 will have some fairly extensive work to rely on in most policy areas, although the big gaps are how Labour’s economic policy will be different to that of the Coalition and how the NHS and the integration of health and social care will be funded. Ed Balls will no doubt keep both of these close to his chest until the manifesto is published so not much is likely to be revealed during the Conference.
The Leader's Speech
The leader’s speech at the party conference has, for a long time, been aimed at inspiring the assembled party and also providing a theme for the media.
Harold Wilson’s speech of 1965 and Tony Blair’s in 1999, though they differ in style, are remarkably similar in content, setting out the achievements of the new Labour Government and presenting Labour as the force of modernisation against the archaic and privileged Tories.
An opposition leader has to do more to get attention and an opinion poll showed only 3% of the public mentioned Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze as something that happened in the week of the 2013 conference when he announced it.
Nevertheless, the speech can set the tone for a party’s campaigning in the months ahead. Miliband has a set of policies such as major housebuilding, allowing social enterprises to bid for rail franchises, a requirement for the living wage when firms get government contracts and the first significant regulation of the private rented sector since the 1970s to put across, but what political analysts call a narrative also has to be created.
Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP who wrote speeches for Harold Wilson, argued last year that he needs to “start a conversation that the Tories are not equipped to handle”. One Nation Labour is too general and while voters relate to the Cost of Living Crisis theme as a problem they do not yet see how Labour will deal with it.
The Views of Constituency Members
Despite the famous Labour Party conferences of 1960 when the party divided on nuclear disarmament and the 1979 conference which began with Ron Hayward, the General Secretary of the Party, launching a bitter attack from the Chair on the previous Labour Government’s economic policy, Labour’s conferences have not generally been divisive.
The constituency party could send resolutions on any topic though and most of the conference consisted in debating them. Conferences are now staged managed under the new rules to limit debate but constituency parties and trade unions can still submit a motion on a Contemporary Issue and the most popular can be voted on and become party policy.
This is particularly tricky this year because the rules do not allow any of the topics that have been settled in the Policy Review to be reopened. Nevertheless motions on Gaza, stopping NHS privatisation and ending public sector pay restraint may well come forward. There may be an attempt to get Trident debated but the Policy Review commits Labour to renewing the nuclear weapons system; the real debate will come when a Government actually has to pay for it.
In the Fringes
The most interesting part of conference is, of course, the fringe where issues will be discussed and ideas will be generated that could influence a Labour Government.
These events are hosted by think tanks and organisations ranging from Age UK to The Royal Statistical Society and cover an array of topics from global food poverty to the youth justice system.
An analysis of this year’s fringe shows that how to achieve a major housing programme ,how to improve the NHS and to integrate health and social care, and economic regeneration at the local and regional level are the most popular topics.
Tristram Hunt is inviting debate on Labour’s education policy at an NUT fringe and other events are assessing what happens next after the Coalition Government has liberalised pensions and introduced Universal Credit.
The TUC is promoting rail nationalisation while a rival event is hosted by the rail operating companies and there are also rival discussions on fracking Dennis Skinner has his own show, hosted by the Daily Mirror, which will undoubtedly be sold out.
The West Lothian Question
The ghost of Tam Dalyell will be hovering over the Conference. The Labour MP for West Lothian asked the question , “For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate ... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”.
Whichever way the referendum vote goes we will be turning into a federal country, with or without Scotland. Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, has called for a Constitutional Convention and the former Labour Minister and MP for Southampton, John Denham, has said that there needs to be a separate English Labour Party. Ed Miliband will have to say something about where he thinks we should be going.