Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Let me start with a question. Do the annual party conferences serve a useful purpose? Yes they do. And I’ll explain why. But their impact on the democratic process is nothing like it once was. The reason is simple: presentation now takes precedence over policy. 

Instead of being the forum which used to have a significant role in determining the polices a party might adopt, the conferences have now become a showcase at which to present the party and its leadership in the best possible light, more like an American political convention.

Labour Party conferences once played a vital role in influencing issues like taxation, employment law or long-running controversies such as nuclear disarmament. Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences also made a significant contribution to their decision-making processes but today they’re more about news management than giving the membership a say in deciding what the policies will be.  

Trade union outrage over Ed Miliband’s support for the coalition government’s  public sector pay freeze – and even the prospect of wage cuts to protect jobs – has echoes of the confrontation twenty years ago when rank and file labour activists were dragged kicking and screaming into accepting Margaret Thatcher’s employment laws.

However short-lived it might prove to be, an assault on the perceived power union bosses is almost always guaranteed to win support from the Sun and other Conservative-supporting newspapers; the determination of the “Red Eds” to take on the “Reds” seems destined to provide plenty of fodder for the headline writers.

Trevor Kavanagh’s first reaction piece in the Sun to the opening salvo by the shadow chancellor Ed Balls – heralding Labour’s first step towards the endorsement of coalition policy – had a classic headline: “Labour has finally found the Balls to tackle union dinosaurs...now barons must listen”. (Sun 16 January, 2012).

 Kavanagh could hardly hide his glee that the “dinosaurs who run Britain’s giant unions” were once again in the firing line. He regarded Balls’ declaration of support for the coalition’s three-year pay freeze as “effectively endorsing its entire economic austerity programme.”

Disciples of the New Labour school of spin doctoring must have been purring with delight when the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper silenced the BBC television presenter Andrew Marr by giving him a master class in not answering the question.

She followed the rule book to the letter: prepare and learn a soundbite and then deploy it relentlessly; when an interviewer finally gives up and beats a retreat, do not smirk.

Eighteen months after the general election, just as the coalition government is about to unveil its make-or-break plans to revive the economy, Nick Clegg is at a political crossroad.

Are the Liberal Democrats going to continue presenting themselves as the coalition’s conscience – the party of “all things to all men” – or will Clegg be able to persuade his colleagues that they should focus their efforts on those policy areas where they do have responsibility and could establish some long-term political credibility?

David Cameron’s culpability in helping to generate a hue and cry over the death of Baby P cannot be overlooked in the war of words between Sharon Shoesmith and Ed Balls.  As Leader of the Opposition, Cameron was the first senior politician to endorse the Sun’s demand for Shoesmith to be sacked from her job as Haringey’s director of children’s services.

 

The Sun pursued what became an unprecedented campaign of vilification directed against an individual local authority official for the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly.  It collected 1.4 million signatures for a petition calling for Shoesmith’s dismissal – a petition which was personally backed by Cameron on the day it was launched in November 2008.