Experienced at close quarters, the ‘big three’ party conference season invariably resonates most loudly to those rituals of reassurance that seem to be aimed specifically at the faithful: the keynote speech, the tub-thumping resolution, the leader’s parting exhortation… and the crushingly predictable standing ovation that follows him back behind the security curtain and into the Green Room.
“Thanks for coming folks!” See you next time in Brighton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester… or anywhere else that looks at least a bit re-generational and doesn’t mind an armed camp rolling into town upon the coat-tails of its Indian summer.
If impressing the regulars was all that mattered, conferencing wouldn’t be too taxing for all those stagers, managers and performers. But in a multi-media world of multiple audiences – political journalists, civil servants, policy wonks, market traders, lobbyists and the rest – “sending out the right signals” turns out to be rather like a game of 3-D chess. That or pure guesswork.
This year, alongside the predictable routines from conference darlings, the annual political road shows dished up various mini-dramas from the theatre of the unexpected. Labour chose the wrong Miliband (according to many pundits) – or possibly the wrong Ed. The Tories had middle England is a tailspin about child benefit cuts potentially discriminating against (gasp!) high-earners. As for the Liberal Democrats, well they tried so hard not to be seen to be gloating over their elevation to high office that they ended up seeming just as bland as the rest.
That’s a real pity, because at some point when you’re not sure you can take another manicured press release, you can usually count on the Lib Dems to start behaving a bit like your favourite weird uncle. You know, the one with the spinning bow tie, rather than that deadly respectable chap on the 8.25am from Chipping Norton who’s absolutely dying to tell you about the next policy forum.
Charming eccentricity? No such luck. While Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander sharpens his cuts axe alongside millionaire Tory Chancellor George Osborne, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg now has to get his conference rallying calls cleared by the head of another party in his office at Number 10. This is less like ‘the new politics’ and more like… well, the kind that gets you a top grade Whitehall pass and a ticket to the UN General Assembly in New York.
Meanwhile, the least spun performance of the whole three weeks did indeed seem to be the new (though definitely not New) Labour leader’s introduction onto the big stage. Ed Miliband has little of his older brother’s statesman-like polish, but the party hierarchs still believe that he’s a promising work-in-progress.
What the opposition leader definitely has, is a clean political slate. His conference joke about David nationalising his train set in the midst of a minor childhood dispute did fall rather flat, admittedly – not least among the advisers who will be required to comment on the next salvo of Train Operating Company reports. But at least he hasn’t rashly promised to make them run on time.
OK, the party pieces are all over (well, if you ignore the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, as most London-based hacks routinely do). Now it’s time to get serious. Here comes the Comprehensive Spending Review.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his latest Westminster Watch column for Third Way (www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/), the magazine of Christian social and cultural commentary.