Westminster Watch - September 2013

As party conference season approaches, all the political parties are jockeying for position, as Toby Craig reports

Later this month, we are expecting the second legal aid consultation, which will quickly absorb the collective minds of the legal profession once again, after an all too brief hiatus. But, of broader interest outside our immediate concerns, Westminster Watchers will be casting their eyes to Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester as party conference season begins again. As the penultimate showcase annual gatherings before the next general election, these are taking on increasing significance as the lines of division between the parties are drawn up, redrafted, polished and set in the run-up to 2015.

Deafening silence

In the spirit of preparation, it has been a difficult August for Ed Miliband, who is coming under increasing scrutiny from his own side about whether or not his leadership passes muster. Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham (coincidentally an erstwhile leadership contender), while saying he had the “utmost respect” for his leader (which readers can decode as they wish), made clear that Labour had to have clear and cogent policies by the spring or risk losing the next election. He was quickly followed by backbench colleagues, like Graham Stringer, who referred to a “deafening silence” from the party’s leadership on policy.

Of course, there’s always a delicate balance in opposition. Its primary job might, by definition, be to oppose, but it also needs to provide a cogent alternative or risk being seen as being against everything and for nothing. Labour will also want to ensure that it gets the timing of any pledges right, so that its best ideas are not quickly snaffled up by the government, sensing an opportunity. What is clear is that the Labour conference is beginning to look like an important platform for Miliband, to set out a vision which is both clear and compelling to his party faithful and secures their confidence in the run-up to the election campaign. Labour’s polling has constantly pegged it ahead of the Conservatives, but Miliband still trails the Prime Minister in polls about the leadership, which will be a concern for those who suspect that he is a weak link.

Winning friends and influencing people is always useful. Miliband might question the wisdom of Shadow Immigration Minister, Chris Bryant, seemingly taking on brands with the clout of Tesco and Next in an apparent reprise of Gordon Brown’s “British Jobs for British Workers” line (which worked out less than well for the then Prime Minister). Bryant’s suggestion was that companies are too quick to look to Eastern Europe, rather than domestically, to bring in workers on short-term contracts, which do not attract the same employment rights as full time positions. It appeared to be in response to the Home Office’s controversial immigration vans, encouraging illegal immigrants to go home which, while divisive, struck a chord with some voters. The growing appeal of the UKIP message in some quarters is certainly emboldening the main parties’ approach to immigration, knowing that it is something which resonates with the electorate. UKIP was quick to denounce the Home Office vans, but the crass reference of UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom to “Bongo Bongo Land” (talking about foreign aid) did nothing to help its cause to become a mainstream political party which should be taken seriously.

Tory baggage

While Labour has given the appearance of not quite getting its electoral ducks in a row, the Conservatives seem much more advanced on that front. Controversial strategist, Lynton Crosby, who successfully masterminded both of Boris Johnson’s successful mayoral campaigns, has taken a seat at the top table where Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson were once key voices in David Cameron’s ear. His tough and clear approach, which has focused on deliberate dividing lines, has helped them to bridge some of the polling gaps. However, he also brings with him the baggage of other clients, particularly the tobacco lobby. He was forced to deny that he had lobbied the government on cigarette packaging. The Tories have also hired Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s re-election campaign manager. Reporting to Crosby, he will be providing strategic advice, particularly around social media and political organisation. The blend of a staunch conservative and lifelong Democrat may prove a strange alchemy but will have many asking whether or not it will work. What does seem certain is that the Conservatives are working hard to be on the front foot and to assemble the key players in a winning strategy early on. They are thinking about winning the next election outright and will be fighting hard to be on the right side of the dividing lines which they craft in the months to come.

Of course, all these election strategists come at a cost. Significant party donors are usually a precious commodity. With that in mind, the Prime Minister might be ruing his response to the Sunday Times “exposé” of millionaire businessman, Peter Cruddas, which alleged that the former Conservative Party Treasurer (and considerable contributor to the party coffers) was seeking to charge well-heeled donors to meet the Prime Minister. At the time, Cameron was quick to describe Cruddas’ reported remarks as “completely unacceptable and wrong”. However, the High Court found in Cruddas’ favour, after he brought a libel claim against the paper, and awarded him £180,000 in damages. The Prime Minister conceded that he owed his former Treasurer an apology. They do
say that sorry sometimes seems the hardest word.

Squeezed out

The question is: where does all of this leave the Lib Dems? The risk of being squeezed out remains, and the party will have to be careful to forge out an identity in government which is distinct from its coalition partner. The best hope for Nick Clegg is probably still focusing on the core coalition pledge: to concentrate on the deficit. That would remain his greatest justification for the sacrifices his party has made when election day comes round. All eyes then on new Bank of England governor, Mark Carney. The lines can be drawn however the parties wish, but it may still be circumstances beyond their control which blur them the most.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.