All of the analysis of conference season seems to come down to two main points. One: that Labour conference was buzzing while Tory conference was stale. Two: that Theresa May managed to clear the low bar set for her and is thus safe until the end of March next year. The first one is at the very least a massive exaggeration; I’m not really sure about the second one there either.
The way that the political media reports on the Labour Party at present is heavily coloured by the fact that they got the 2017 general election so wrong. Back then they fed into a narrative that Labour were going to be decimated; when Labour only did fairly badly instead, there were some red faces. As a result, there has been a massive overcompensation to those prognostications; now, the Labour Party is definitely going to win the next general election. The party is “buzzing” and we’re back to examining the major problems the Conservative party has, problems it has mostly had in one way or another for the past 25 years and yet that didn’t stop them winning the 2015 general election.
This year’s conference season reminded me a little bit of 2012’s edition. Labour conference was buzzing that year, with the feeling that the coalition government was on the verge of splitting apart. Add to that the “omnishambles” budget and the fact that Labour were about 12 points up in the polls, all of which seemed to cement the idea that Labour were definitely going to be in government, possibly within the next year. This was the taken assumption. Only, it didn’t work out that way, and Labour had to wait another two and half years, only to then be crushed by the Tories.
Looking back six years and comparing it to now, my main take aways are that the Labour Party was united then in a way that it is a long way from today; that they were much more popular with the public at large, particularly with parts of the electorate they are nowhere near now; 2012 conference really was buzzing in a way the 2018 edition was not; and that, for whatever this is worth, the business community seemed to consider the possibility of a Labour government about ten times more seriously than they do now. So much of the rhetoric within Labour circles at present is eerily reminiscent of what was heard in 2012: that a general election Labour has no way of bringing about is just around the corner and will be won decisively. Again, at least in 2012 the polls were heavily in Labour’s favour; a YouGov poll out today puts the Tories six points ahead. Imagine what happens if there is a new Conservative leader that is actually popular?
Yes, the Tories have to navigate Brexit, which is a huge hurdle. But if May manages to cobble something together and gets it through parliament, even if it’s by one vote, what does Labour do then? What’s the back up plan here? What is most likely if that happens is that while the Conservatives will get on with electing a new leader, Labour’s divisions will rear their head again.