Party Conferences 2013: Ed Miliband has the most to gain and lose this time round

September in British politics marks the end of what is known as ‘silly season’ and ushers in a return to the serious business of running the country. The new term really kicks off next week with the start of the Party Conference season. Every year politicians and thousands of party members, lobbyists, charities, businesses and media types descend on one regional city or another for the annual mix of back slapping, hushed words in dark corners, grand political promises and a little self-indulgent navel-gazing.

In previous years the Conference scene was recognised as a genuine setting for the common or garden variety party member to have a say in the direction of their party, and influence policy and political debate. Now, as in much of British politics, that influence has increasingly become the privilege of business and the wealthy. Tickets to one official conference dinner, for example, range from £300 to £12,000 per table. Not something that the average party member can afford. They have become glossy, stage-managed, for-the-cameras, unrepresentative and charmless affairs held in cavernous, featureless conference centres. They are now vehicles for lobbyists, charities and business to rub their shoulders even closer with ministers, MPs and political power-brokers to influence party policy.

The demographic of attendees is telling. Take 2012. At the Conservative Party conference, party members made up only 38% of the 13,000 strong attendees. Lobbyists made up 36% and the media 20%, and ‘other guests 6%. At Labour’s conference members and politicians made up 45% of attendees, with business contributing 20%; charities 15%; the media 17%; and ‘international guests’ 3%. The Liberal Democrats fared a little better when party members constituted 45% of the 7,000 attendees, 36% were from commercial, charity and non-government organisations, and 19% from the media. The broadly similar demographic of attendees at all three conferences is symptomatic of a wider trend in British politics; that of the decline in party membership and inevitably members’ influence over party policy.

First up the Liberal Democrats are in Glasgow. Despite a turbulent last 18 months (and most people would say 3 years), which have seen Nick Clegg apologise for his party’s u-turn on tuition fees and being foiled on House of Lords reform, he goes into the conference with a decent approval rating. According to the Liberal Democrat Voice website 58% of party members are either ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with his performance as leader. They seem to be coming round to the conclusion that he has played a bad hand well.

The Labour Party are in Brighton. Last year Ed Miliband looked the most secure of the three leaders after taking on Rupert Murdoch over phone-hacking and then delivering a speech that was well-received by both the left and right-wing media. 12 months in politics is a long time and this is surely the case for Miliband. His party was leading in the polls by 10% before the summer recess. But after a summer which has seen run-ins with Trade Union bosses and senior Labour figures calling for him to ‘shout louder, and the Tories doing much of the running on policy, he has lost some momentum and Labour’s lead, according to YouGov has been cut to between 4% and 7% depending on which polls you read. His own rating remains significant. Even after the House of Commons vote on military action against Syria, public opinion towards Ed Miliband has hardly shifted. In a YouGov poll 6% identified him as decisive, 5% good in a crisis, and 2% a natural leader. In contrast David Cameron scores 13%, 10% and 13% respectively.

An issue for him to confront in his conference speech is that the economy is turning a corner, albeit with the speed of an oil tanker. Growth between now and 2015 will require Labour to alter is economy policy somewhat, as it will struggle to convince the public that the coalition’s austerity plan isn’t working if it sees GDP growing. Instead he and Ed Balls will need to shape a narrative which argues that it has not been ‘ordinary, hard working’ families that have benefited from that growth. They need to convince that they are still the party of the low paid and champions of the consumer, not business. Ronald Reagan asked the American people in the run up to the 1980 Presidential election whether they were better off than they were four years’ ago. Reagan went on to win that election. Miliband could do worse than to take inspiration from this.

Once criticism of Team Miliband has been of a policy vacuum at the heart of its operation. Talk about ‘One Nation’ Labour, pre-distribution and predator capitalism sounds quite exciting to those who take a real interest in the to-and-fro of Westminster politics , but some meat will need to be put on the bones of his vision to really connect with people, especially those that would not normally vote Labour. He shouldn’t worry too much about announcing detailed policy though. I recall that in opposition David Cameron didn’t announce detailed Conservative policy until late in 2009, less than six months before the general election.

To round off the 2013 conference season the Tories are in Manchester. David Cameron has almost certainly put any rebellion pre-2015 talk behind him with his pledge earlier this year to hold a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the European Union, although I would expect him to go strong on this in his speech. He has done well to keep the Coalition together but now is probably the time to being the disentanglement that MPs on both sides clearly hanker for. To begin this process he needs to set out some clear policy differences between them and the Liberal Democrats, and make it clear what the Tories will campaign on in 2015.

With the likelihood that Labour will begin to focus on the rising cost of living between now and the general election, the Conservatives will have to match both rhetoric and action on measures to reduce households’ energy (which may come in the form of announcements of further tax breaks for shale gas exploitation) and food bills, as well as measures to raise either wages or lower taxes.

A final thought. Party conferences can generate a great deal of money for local economies. Labour’s conference in Manchester in 2012 boosted the local economy by an estimated £24m. How about next year the parties consider hosting their conferences in cities that need a financial boost.