Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Conference season is over: but who cares about Conferences?

I have been advertising my blog to my new students as a 'learning resource', yet nothing has appeared here for a while. Ooops, books, journal articles and life got in the way, so has Twitter! Too easy to share a link. However, given that we now start a new period of politics in the UK, parliament reconvenes, a spending review is imminent, and a coalition government now has to show substance as well as unity, I thought I would add a few thoughts on what to expect based on the events of the conferences.
Party Conferences are strange events. They were once spaces for deliberation. Where the party met and set a direction. Well sort of anyway. Perhaps that is more the ideal than the reality, but the often bitter arguments that took place in history show them to be more about the party meeting than presenting itself to the nation. As James Stanyer records in his book covering the evolution of conferences, they are now far more a media event than a place for policy making. And the media play a key role in translating events to the wider public, but they also need to make a story about each conference.
The Liberal Democrats perhaps had the toughest job. Conference is supposed to be a place for policy debate, easy when you are the third party but not so when you are junior partners in a coalition; and they are junior albeit punching above their weight. Leader Nick Clegg had to sell the coalition, the tough decisions, and also position these within Liberal Democratic values. Tough tasks which in the end the media suggested he did well but the talk of splits was constant and all those questions about whether Vince Cable was on message or really a socialist did not help the cause. Their problem was the multiple audiences, not only the party but the media, their Conservative partners and the voters they hope will stay loyal and those they need to persuade to support them in the future. Tougher given that most of these audiences will be served more by the media than by live coverage of events.
Labour in a way stole the show. The dramatic finish to the leadership contest saw brother beat brother and the media handed a fantastic soap opera story line. The Milibands became a modern day Cain and Abel, a real life Grant and Phil Mitchell. Ed, the victor, became 'Red Ed', and Neil Kinnock got 'his' party back. For an opposition party the first conference after an election is less important. It is more about rallying the troops and showing an element of acceptance, humility and setting out a course for reform. But the story was one of factionalism and David Miliband's exit was interpreted a number of ways: petulance, disappointment, disillusion, rejection of the result. Ed Miliband has a long journey but perhaps as a new leader his start was unhelpful and could be compared to the treatment of William Hague as incoming Conservative leader in 1997. Rejection of the party by the voters allows for negative coverage, criticisms of the choice of leader override positives, their history is more important than their future. The continuing story will be whether Ed buries Blairism (whatever that was) and New Labour, and how he can unite the party as a positive opposition monitoring government.
The Conservatives was, in contrast, the damp squib that never really lit up coverage. When the big story is that Conservatives are split over reforms to a universal benefit you know that there is little to say. Cameron's performance equally was seen as solid but unexciting. Abandoning his script-free style, this was a careful speech that seemed to spend equal time attacking his predecessors and thanking his supporters: not much policy really just a little more flesh on the 'we are in it together', 'Britain needs you', Big Society narrative of society he has been developing. The interesting aspect was his expressed commitment to the coalition and partnership with Clegg.
So they return to parliament, for Labour it is rebuilding a brand around Ed Miliband to engage those who are dissatisfied with the coalition. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats need to retain their own identities and present an unified image as a coalition, simultaneously. The media will be looking for disunity in the coalition and the partner parties, as well as signs of socialism from Red Ed. Should be an interesting time to study political communication!

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