A conference season to remember

Friday 30th October 2015

jon-snowJon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News, discusses with Marcus Papadopoulos the autumn party conference season in the context of this May’s monumental general election and what the public can expect to see happening in Bournemouth, Brighton, Manchester and Aberdeen

At the beginning of this year, few people at Westminster, and elsewhere across Britain, would have predicted that going into this year’s autumn party conference season, one of the UK’s main political parties would be in government alone, having achieved a majority at the general election.   

The Conservative Party’s victory at the general election this May constitutes one of the most extraordinary results in British electoral history and has heralded the decline of the Liberal Democrats, while sending the Labour Party into free fall.  The UK has a Conservative-majority government pursuing and implementing very Conservative policies, against the backdrop of a marginalised opposition. 

However, while commentators refer to Labour, the official opposition, as being “marginalised”, the same commentators consider the Scottish National Party to be actually leading the charge in providing rigorous and effective opposition to the Conservative government.  Indeed, the SNP’s 56 MPs at Westminster can potentially derail numerous policies of the government, such is the small majority which David Cameron commands in the House of Commons.   

Has the Conservatives’ honeymoon period finished? Can Labour recover from its emphatic defeat at the general election? Where next for the SNP?  And are the Liberal Democrats a spent force in British politics? 

Those pertinent questions, in the context of the autumn party conference season, are addressed in an exclusive interview here by one of the most prominent political journalists and commentators in the UK: Jon Snow. 

Jon, who has been the face of Channel 4 News since 1989, has been on the political circuit for nearly four decades, having covered numerous turning points in history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe) and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.  Jon’s open-minded take on domestic and international affairs, and how he is undeterred in questioning the mainstream narrative, such as on the Syrian conflict, has earned him widespread applause and respect from people up and down the UK.   

With the autumn party conference season before the country, Jon offers his analysis and thoughts on what could happen when the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Conservatives and SNP converge on Bournemouth, Brighton, Manchester and Aberdeen, respectively.   

Q How will this year’s autumn party conference season compare to previous ones in recent years? 

This conference season will be like no other. We are in the midst of a political firestorm in which the disconnect between Westminster and the electorate has never been more clearly set out. Who could have predicted that the Scottish National Party would so upheave the body politic in the way they have in 2015?  Or that Jeremy Corbyn would so dominate the pre-conference season reporting with his unexpectedly startling dash for the Labour leadership?

Who could have predicted that the Liberal Democrats would be so ferociously punished by the electorate for establishing a most stable and, at times, productive coalition.

Labour’s unexpectedly dramatic leadership campaign has ensured that their conference will be thick with debate over the party’s soul. Jeremy Corbyn not only became the darling of the social network, but threw into the contest issue after issue which many in New Labour had hoped had been buried for all time. Corbyn connected with alienated voters, both young and old. Whether the conference decides to travel with any of the ideas which seem to have captivated so many party members in the leadership election, or try to hang on to what once served New Labour so well, will be one of the many great floor and fringe debates that will dominate this conference in Brighton. 

  As the most seasoned party leader at this year’s conferences, David Cameron, after ten years in charge of the Tories, has a problem. Close scrutiny of the maths from the 2015 election leave him in charge and in power, but with only 36 per cent of the votes. His party may be tempted to rest on their laurels, and it will be hard for them not to, given the challenges facing Labour and the Liberal Democrats. But Mr Cameron has his own problems – not least an expanded band of very seriously anti- European MPs. And that, as John Major would be able to tell him, can, and probably will, spell a lot of trouble for him both in the hall in Manchester and on the fringes.

As for the SNP conference in Aberdeen, the mood there will be exuberant and slightly disbelieving. Those attending will likely be both younger and more stimulating than has been seen at any political party conference in recent times.  By having 56 MPs at Westminster, the SNP is, without a doubt, a mover and shaker in UK politics…and they are letting the other parties know it. 

Q Where next for the SNP? 

They have to sort out serious issues in the Scottish Parliament and continue to represent the demands and needs of alienated voters across the UK – and I stress the whole of the UK, not just Scotland, as the SNP’s stance on the Hunting Act and the Welfare Reform and Work Bill has demonstrated. In Nicola Sturgeon, they have a leader respected well beyond the Scottish border.

Q Will Labour have come to terms with its emphatic defeat at this May’s general election by the time party delegates arrive in Brighton? 

They have two things to come to terms with. Firstly, the defeat, and secondly, the individual who they have elected to be their new leader.  Both will take some time to come to terms with. Despite the passage of time since the election, and the tumultuous process of electing their new leader, the defeat may now prove very secondary to the issue of who now leads them. It will also be interesting to see if Ed Miliband appears.  However, the past was not just Mr Miliband.  I would also add that Labour has never come to terms with the Blair inheritance, which, after all, domestically was very successful but externally was, eventually, utterly ruinous for the party. One senses that every time ISIS strikes, the electorate is reminded of the catastrophe which was the decision to go to war in Iraq. It is one central issue which arguably contributes to the current alienation of the electorate to which I have already referred. Mr Blair is likely to go down in UK history as having run the most disastrous foreign policy since, and including, Anthony Eden.   

Q Could the Liberal Democrats’ much spoken about “fight back” begin, in earnest, in Bournemouth? 

I believe that some kind of fight back will begin at their conference.  While the Liberal Democrats will be saddened that they paid the price for having done the decent thing, I suspect that out of the four party conferences, the Liberal Democrat one might have the most fight back aspect to it.  That, in part, is because some of the old warhorses, largely unseen since the election, could be back on stage – people who had ministerial power and now do not  have a seat, such as Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Danny Alexander.  However, Tim Farron’s ‘ambivalence’ about the rights and wrongs of gay sex may wreak some continuing damage to the party. 

Q What soundbites will come out of the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and SNP conferences? 

Well, you have not mentioned the Green Party Conference, and UKIP had theirs this February. So a Green soundbite might be: ‘With the UN Paris Summit on Climate Change opening this November, there has never been a more important time to join us’. For the Liberal Democrats: ‘It ain’t over till it’s over’. For Labour: ‘Thank you, Jeremy Corbyn, for what you have done for us!’ From the Conservative conference, this: ‘After 40 years, can we please bury Europe as an issue’.  And from the SNP conference: ‘If you want devolved power across the UK, learn from us!’ 

Q How will the four party leaders use their respective conferences to appeal to the public? 

David Cameron will most certainly use his conference to extensively appeal to the public, which he is extremely good at doing – after all, his roots in public relations come into full bloom when he is at a Tory Conference.  The new Labour leader will somehow have to bury the worst of the past, apologise for the Iraq war, and come to terms with the Blair legacy, and move on. As for Tim Farron, he will want to ensure that his name gets an identity attached to it – a brand.  And finally, Nicola Sturgeon will talk about the issues which people really care about – housing, education, foreign affairs, nuclear deterrence and more. 

Q Finally, can you provide a snappy dictum for the four party conferences. 

Potentially explosive!

And the big question is: which of them will truly connect with the public outside their assorted conference halls?

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