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Labour v Conservative: My Party Conference Comparison 2012

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I'll confess; finding something to write about the Conservative party conference hasn't been easy. I'd written about the Labour Party conference so in the interests of fairness I wanted to write something about the Conservative conference.

David Cameron's speech was an obvious one - but what to write? Labour supporters were never going to love it whatever its content. For Conservative supporters, Cameron's commitment to various right-leaning policies meant that there was something for everyone. But for us casual observers, or even the odd swing voter, there wasn't really much to say about it. He came. He made a speech. It was a speech for austere times. It was a serious speech. It was a speech all about staying on the right course. But this all meant that it wasn't a particularly exciting speech.

So what would people find interesting? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that people I talked to (mostly party members) were interested in the fact that I was attending both conferences, as if I was leading some kind of exciting life as a double agent. So, for anyone wanting to know what conference life was like over on the other side, I present my Conference Comparison 2012.

Who was there?

The Labour party conference was full of MPs and their staff. Often, their whole constituency office was out in force. Shadow Ministers and Shadow Cabinet members were also everywhere to be seen, often milling around and about the exhibition hall. Party members made up a sizeable proportion of delegates, with a large chunk of these being younger party members in their late teens and early 20s. These younger party members were very keen, and could often be found enthusiastically representing their constituencies in fringe meetings and excitedly talking about speeches that had taken place in the conference hall.

The Conservative conference also had a lot of young party members present, who were just as enthusiastic, and interestingly, as optimistic as their Labour counterparts. The number of young party members seemed to outweigh other members; the rumour in the media that average members hadn't gone to conference seemed to ring true. Many of the older members present were local councillors or people holding positions on various committees. Cabinet ministers were dotted about but were largely flanked by their entourages, with the notable exception of Ken Clarke, who was the only Minister I spotted outside the secure zone. I also met far fewer MPs (although respect to my local MPs, who were there), and a lot more lobbyists. However, some of these things, like the lobbyists, are likely down to be the fact of being in government.

What was the atmosphere like?

As I mentioned in another post, the atmosphere at the Labour Conference was quite buoyant. Delegates seemed to have got over the defeat of 2010. Instead of worries over a potentially long exile from government, there was hope about 2015, and this hope was reinforced after Ed Miliband's speech. This all made for quite a positive conference. Sure, the conference was smaller than it had been during Labour's heyday. The delegate numbers weren't what they were, and a lot of the lobbyists evidently felt that it still wasn't worth their time being there, but that didn't matter. The party faithful were out in force, and they believed.

Over at the Conservative conference, delegates were clearly experiencing the mid-term blues. People weren't down as such, but the energy that surrounded the party in the run up to the 2010 election and in the early days of government wasn't all there. Instead, this had been replaced by a feeling of just getting on with it, of sticking with the difficult decisions, seeing the coalition out, and hoping that in 2015 the economic evidence will speak for itself. Yes, fringe meetings were often lively affairs, and individual delegates themselves were often enthusiastic, but the ICC was a rather subdued place to be.

What were the fringe meetings like?

Both conferences were host to a plethora of fringe meetings. A big focus at both conferences was youth unemployment. This comes as no surprise, given that it is one of the most talked about issues in the media and has pretty much become a measure of economic success (or not) in itself.

The Labour fringe meetings also reflected the atmosphere of the Labour conference. The meetings came with subtitles like 'Winning In 2015' and were full of aspirational questions such as 'How...?'. These kind of fringes are one of the luxuries of being in opposition, where policies are still being formulated and there isn't so much of a party line to adhere to.

In contrast, at the Conservative fringe meetings ministers understandably had to be on message. There was less scope for discussion of the future, and more time was dedicated to detailing what has and is being done policy-wise. There also seemed to be more invite only and party member only receptions than at the Labour conference; no doubt there are good reasons for this, such as allowing full and frank discussion of policy, but it was something that was noticed and commented upon by visitors.

And the speeches?

The Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet conference speeches pretty much followed the pattern of that of their leader.

The Shadow Cabinet speeches were equal parts passionate and equal parts scathing of the government, with some outline of policy but not a lot of substance. The Labour faithful seemed to love it all.

The speeches of Cameron's Cabinet took the same line as his in that they reinforced the Government's overall message and stance on policy. They didn't say anything new, and weren't particularly exciting. Boris Johnson was entertaining but didn't court controversy. The biggest news from Michael Gove's speech, who can usually be relied upon to say something controversial, was that he was wearing glasses. The speeches went down all right, but delegates were largely passive (aside from their 'Borisnania', that is).

So overall?

Labour are using opposition to their advantage, and members are responding to the rallying cries of those in charge. The Conservatives are sticking things out. Government is not proving easy but they seem to be taking people along with them - especially their young members, who could be the campaigning difference in 2015 between a Labour victory and a Labour defeat.