Friday 3 October 2008

After the conferences: what have we learned?

After all the sound and fury, what have we learned from the main party conferences this year? Here's my effort to pull some threads together, before we move on.

1. Conservatives. The main lesson I take from the Conservative conference is that the much trumpeted 'progressive' Conservatism is mood music without real substance. The lack of policy substance was evident in Cameron's speech and in party fringe meetings, particularly on the key 'progressive' area of social policy. The lack of inspiration in social policy applies at two levels. First, there is simply the lack of concrete policy ideas. Second, there is the complete lack of anything like conceptual innovation. The Conservatives like to present themselves as breaking new conceptual ground on what poverty is and how to try to combat it. But all of their 'big ideas' - poverty is multidimensional, 'rights and responsibilities', increasing the role of the voluntary sector, focusing on skills and employability - are (for better or worse) the social policy 'common sense' of our time. Labour has been acting on these ideas for over a decade. Conservative social policy thinking consists of banal generalities and an absence of concrete specifics.

2. Liberal Democrats. The main lesson I take from the Liberal Democrat conference is that they are now a much more right-wing party, pitching themselves as tax-cutters. They will try to deny this by arguing that they wish to focus tax cuts lower down the income scale. But: (1) by no means all of their tax cuts will benefit those on low incomes; (2) they explicitly seek a cut in the overall tax take, which has knock-on effects on social spending, e.g., abolition of the Child Trust Fund; and (3) their rhetoric has shifted in a right-wing direction. The Liberal Democrats have enjoyed pitching themselves to the left of Labour in recent years and gathering up votes from disaffected progressives. Their tax-cutting agenda puts them to the right of Labour and throws a question-mark over their real commitment to (or understanding of) social justice.

3. Labour. This is the conference I found hardest to read, perhaps because its the one that I find hardest to be objective about. My impression is that Labour is seeking to consolidate its support by bringing back the emphasis on 'fairness'. However, there is still an unwillingness to make explicit links between fairness and equality (or equalities). The party also remains unsure of the significance of the ongoing financial crisis and what this might imply for contemporary social democracy. There is an apparent lack of confidence in its own values and instincts.

4. Overall. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have weakened their claims to represent 'progressive' politics. This creates an opportunity for Labour, particularly if it can develop further its stronger emphasis on 'fairness'.

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