Conference season is in full swing. For a few days each through September and early October, the four main British political parties and their accompanying army of press, lobbyists and the occasional delegate embark en masse to far-flung English cities for prolonged boozing and debauchery. Policies are unveiled, initiatives launched, but what every politico remembers of conference season, whatever the party, venue or year, is the four day hangover and inevitable post-conference flu.
The power of a conference to set the tone with which a party is reported by the media and, consequently, viewed by the public, shouldn’t be ignored especially so close to a General Election. A successful conference coupled with a brilliant key-note speech from the leader can shore up a party’s popularity and voter confidence, while the immense pressure exacerbates any meltdown. No one will be quite so aware of this right now than Ed Miliband.
Last weekend, the hapless Labour leader wreaked havoc over his party’s election hopes by choosing the moment of his make-or-break conference speech to avoid the single biggest issue facing Britain both now and for at least the next few decades: the deficit. Miliband forgot the economy and the monumental black hole his party created; by choosing style over substance and failing to produce either, Miliband reminded us once again why we should never give Labour another chance. I suppose, however, that this could be seen as Labour moving in the correct direction. Ignoring is better than destroying. But it was fantastically embarrassing nonetheless when Labour seriously needed a boost ahead of May 2015 and because this gaffe occurred at conference it couldn’t slip under the radar.
This weekend is the turn of UKIP who embark on their biggest annual rendezvous on a fantastic high. The Eurosceptics won the European Elections, they have a healthy presence across the country at local government level; the party continues to grow in size and consistently polls at around 15%, eclipsing the Liberal Democrats. They have Douglas Carswell, soon to be UKIP’s first MP, and have a good shot at taking the Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton. And this year, in true UKIP style, they have chosen Doncaster Racecourse as their venue.
The chosen venue for a party’s conference says a lot about the mood, tone and desired image that they are trying to project. The Tories oscillate between the insipid glass halls of Birmingham and Manchester; Labour deviate between Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton and Bournemouth – two strongholds and a couple of Southern sea-side cities for good measure. No one knows where the Lib Dems hold theirs because nobody attends them anymore.
Doncaster is an interesting choice, especially for those of us loyal to the classically liberal UKIP of old but put off by its turn towards blue collar populism. Doncaster is on the border of Ed Miliband’s constituency and in what was once Labour heartland, this points to a decision by UKIP HQ to continue to chase the former-Labour, white working class vote.
Sources suggest that Farage will use his speech to claim that his party represents the very people Labour have abandoned. This could spell misery for the long-forgotten libertarian wing, as it can only mean that immigration will remain in the firing line. Farage is also likely to play the NHS card, promising to protect that antiquated monolithic pseudo-religion in stark contrast to UKIP’s former commitment to privatisation and reducing the public sector across the board. Disappointing, yet necessary given the general public’s obsession with this failing money burner.
And yet, the liberals in UKIP may still have cause to celebrate. Rumours suggest that UKIP will keep to its promises to deliver a simpler tax system across the board, taking those on the lowest incomes out of income tax altogether as well as finally ending punitive death taxes. On energy the party remains sound, opposing carbon taxes, wind farms and the neo-Malthusian green lobby in Brussels. There will be other surprises and rather fewer long faces than the racecourse is used to, despite reported fears from within the party that their conference may be overshadowed by ISIS and the subsequent recalling of parliament. Nigel is due to speak around midday, although this might be moved to avoid a potential clash with a parliamentary debate on the current situation and Britain’s inevitable further intervention in the Middle East.
Many UKIP supporters and, indeed, their former head of press and MEP for the Eastern Region Patrick O’Flynn, have taken to their keyboards to decry this “conspiracy”. They are probably right. It is not above Cameron to use any excuse he can find to detract from UKIP’s success and steal the attention of the media from Farage. However, I suspect that – although this is likely to be the case – it does not look good for UKIP to make the case. UKIP has to be more careful when discussing alleged conspiracies than any other big player; to do is often reminiscent of the paranoid, chem-trail believing, “Queen Lizzy is an evil lizard sent by the Freemasons” brigade that used to make up your standard UKIP warrior. Cameron’s tactics are likely to be dirty, however to suggest so may detract from the media’s over-due acceptance that the party has matured.
I would love to be up in Doncaster, dressed in purple and tweed and guffawing about our forthcoming victories over too many pints and a few pre-midday gins, but, alas, my day-job calls. There will surely be a few gaffes, head-ache inducing inappropriate comments from someone who should know better, and some eyebrow-raising fringe events (independence for South Yemen, anybody?), but for the Party that can seemingly do no wrong while remaining capable of surviving what would cripple others, I imagine this fabulous weekender will be a monumental success.
If it does all go wrong, there is one thing for certain; it will attract more people and press than the Lib Dems, the leader will end it having achieved far greater success than his Labour counterpart and the activists will be filled with a far greater hope than the grassroots Tory brigade after their trip to Birmingham. UKIP leaps towards both the upcoming by-elections and next year’s General Election with much to be excited about and even more to be proud of; I just wish I was there to watch it unfold.