The mood at the annual get-togethers of the two main UK political parties could not have been more different. The Conservatives appeared downtrodden, acting almost as if they’ve already lost the next election, with activists talking about what they will do ‘when we’re back in opposition’. On the other hand, Labour members were jubilant, delighted by the shock election result in June, with Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the helm of the party looking more secure than ever. A foreign observer of the conferences who had not kept up to date with British politics could be forgiven for thinking – as some party members appear to have convinced themselves – that it was Labour that had won the most votes and seats in June and formed a government.
These divergent tones were reflected in both leaders’ speeches. Corbyn appeared more assured, more professional than in either of his previous addresses. In both delivery and content, it was for the most part a typical speech for a Labour leader in opposition: attack the government’s competence, its record and its values; try to goad them into calling another election; fudge the big, divisive issue of the day (Brexit); promise to save public services.
But Corbyn still managed to remind his core supporters that he isn’t just any Labour leader. The attacks on some parts of the media and the call to ‘end the oppression of the Palestinian people’ received some of the longest and loudest ovations. The lines on rent controls and public ownership of utilities received attention in the media, but it is unclear if they represent a real shift in policy as compared to the June manifesto (my gut is that they don’t).
Most interesting were his comments on housing and technology, which hint at new thinking. On housing, Corbyn – no doubt to the dismay of Labour councillors across the country – was highly critical of the way regeneration has been conducted by local authorities. The proposed remedy is to guarantee those who live on an estate will get a home on the same site and on the same terms as before, and to require councils to hold and win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before going ahead. This could be a significant obstacle to Labour meeting its commitment to building 100,000 new council and housing association homes per year if and when it forms a government.
On technology, it was speculated that the speech might propose a ‘robot tax’. The language is open to interpretation – ‘publicly managed’ technological advances and sharing the benefits to create ‘a springboard for expanded creativity and culture’ – if anything hinting more at claiming some kind of public stake in the tech sector, and a dipping of the toe into the basic income debate.
The substance was heavily trailed, but failed to break through these mishaps. On housing, May has committed to building a new generation of council houses, but has committed just £2bn to it, which amounts to 25,000 new homes (there are 1.2m people currently on the waiting list). By contrast, the Help to Buy programme, which raises demand without addressing supply, is being given a further £10bn.
On higher education, the Tories have promised to freeze tuition fees and raise the income threshold at which students begin paying them back. The latter is actually a progressive move, with those on lower incomes paying back less before unpaid loans are written off after thirty years.
However, with Labour promising to abolish fees altogether – whatever the rights or wrongs of that policy – I can’t imagine this move winning the Conservatives back many votes. If voters are worried about fees, why not vote for the party that will get rid of them altogether? May’s policy move will cost over £2bn a year, and may well do a lot of good, but all it has done in political terms is to raise the salience of an issue where Labour’s offer is far stronger.
While we’re yet to see how conference season has impacted each party’s position in the polls (early indications suggest it hasn’t), it’s worth remembering that in most previous years, any movement around this time has proved temporary. Despite the Conservatives having a torrid time since the election, voting intention numbers have been remarkably consistent, with both parties stuck at around 40 percent. Choppy waters could still be ahead for Labour, as its Brexit position has not yet come under sustained scrutiny and internal divisions remain just below the surface. With the government’s progress on crucial negotiations apparently progressing little, and the last election showing just how much short campaigns can matter, British politics remains characterised by huge uncertainty.