“Reckless” is the word of the party conference season so far. It is most often applied to the Chancellor’s “KamiKwasi” uncosted fiscal event which plunged the markets into expensive chaos for UK tax payers and home owners.
More surprisingly one Labour grande dame thought it appropriate to the Labour leader’s behaviour in Liverpool last week. “Reckless isn’t a word normally used about Keir” she confided, “But it was reckless to try that thing with God Save the King – and he got away with it.” The unheckled, unprotested, rendition of the National Anthem set the tone for a highly successful conference for the quiet man who aspires to lead the centrist “political wing of the British people.” When Labour last gathered on the banks of the Mersey in 2018 Cobynism was in full swing. Many Palestinian flags flew with never a Union Jack in sight, let alone making up the giant backdrop in the conference hall. This year a few forlorn campaigners were reduced to trying to hand leaflets to the smartly dressed and well-coiffed delegates passing by. New Labour and Starmer’s Labour have made peace with each other, epitomised by the recruitment to the top team of the professorial Peter Hyman, formerly strategist and speech writer for Tony Blair. Hyman has returned to politics after a decade in education heading up outstanding comprehensive schools.
As Momentum melts away, business stands had sprouted in the exhibition halls. Labour awarded Stand of the Year to the Hydrogen Zone, sponsored by big companies working in the sector and curated by my friends at Beyond 2050. Piece de resistance is a massive green hydrogen powered double decker bus. If Labour gets power, Ed Miliband made concrete commitments to back the industry and green hydrogen production. The bus now moves to Birmingham. Kwasi Kwarteng was keener on hydrogen than fracking when he was Business Secretary but has yet to commit himself as chancellor.
The Liverpool venue is now vying with Glasgow to host next year’s Eurovision Song Contest, on behalf of Ukraine, this year’s winner. Both sites are on riversides where Michael Heseltine spurred regeneration after old dockyards had been flattened. Hezza is a Shirley Bassey man and might have preferred a Cardiff option for the song contest but deserves a hat tip whichever city the BBC opts for. My money is on Liverpool – the Beatles are the fons et origo of pop music, while choosing Scotland might be a bit too political for the corporation in its centenary year.
Liverpool is a new party conference venue and one where the Conservatives have never yet dared to tread – perhaps no surprise given the red tinge of Merseyside politics. The Tories are now pretty iffy about Brighton as well for similar reasons, and basically alternate between Manchester and Birmingham. Travelling to big cities is easier even if the West Coast mainline and the rail unions have made it difficult this year. But in Liverpool, I found myself thinking something I never thought I would: “I miss Blackpool.”
I was horrified as a much younger man when I calculated that I had already spent six months of my life in Blackpool because of the annual cycle of political significant conferences which once included TUC, Liberals, SDP, Labour and Conservatives. Conferences are shorter now, the TUC less important, and the merged Liberal Democrats cancelled their meeting due to the Queen’s death. Decaying facilities and accommodation and the end of direct trains meant Labour gave up going to Blackpool in 2002 with the Tories following by 2007. New Labour’s somewhat questionable cunning plan to regenerate the town by locating a “super casino” there backfired. Other locations demanded a competition, and the chief planning officer assessing the bids reported that even hosting the only super casino in England would not be enough to save the resort.
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The puritan Gordon Brown cancelled the whole gambling idea anyway when he became Prime Minister. But there is much to be said for the seaside, the golden mile, the lights, the bracing climate and the best, most atmospheric, conference hall. Great efforts have been made to spruce things up locally. Levelling up will truly have been achieved when the two big political parties decide that Blackpool is fit again to host their travelling circuses.
What is the mood going to be like at the Tory Conference which begins this weekend in Birmingham? The Conservatives chose a shiny new leader only a month ago, which must be something to boast about, had Liz Truss’s first initiatives not plunged her party an astonishing 33 points behind Labour in YouGov’s eve of conference opinion poll for The Times. The mood in Blackpool in 2003 could be the nearest parallel. As an independent outside observer I try to adopt a constructive and friendly attitude for my interactions with the faithful of all colours at their events. Sure enough, the Conservatives put on a loyal show in the Wintergardens, giving their leader – Iain “The Quiet Man Turning Up the Volume” Duncan Smith – multiple standing ovations. Yet from the moment I arrived in the Imperial Hotel, MPs and operatives greeted me with “He’s got to go, you know”. They duly sacked IDS a few weeks later.
We are told that letters are already going into Sir Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 committee for a vote of (no) confidence in Liz Truss. Experts also insist that party rules mean that a new leader is safe from such a challenge for twelve months. Both can’t be right. It turns out they can. I am told that the executive of the ’22 are free to change the rules for choosing a new parliamentary leader any time they like. Tory MPs could, and should, take back the right to select the leader from the party membership. So should the Labour party. After IDS, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, choosing a potential or actual Prime Minister is demonstrably too important a task to leave to a self-selecting bunch of partisans, who together make up a tiny fraction of the electorate. MPs at least have a democratic mandate by being elected in their own right.
The election looks to be a long way off. Tory MPs are holding out for next June when the new parliamentary boundaries come into force by order in council – that is, without the need for a further parliamentary vote. Some believe that the rebalancing could give the Tories more than twenty extra seats. Sober psephologists suggest it will be closer to half a dozen. But Conservatives should be careful what they wish for. By definition a fairer distribution of voters increases the marginality of “safe seats”. If there was a swing against the Tories of anything like the magnitude in current polls the butcher’s bill of seats lost would be greater under the new arrangements. Liz Truss says she has no plans for an election before 2024. She would be reckless indeed to put her popularity to the test any time soon.
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