AUTUMN is the season in the UK for shooting pheasants and grouse, for new drama series on TV and for cloudy, rainy days. But it is also party conference season when all the major and minor political parties gather in different cities on successive weekends to set out their policies before the faithful. Thousands of Conservatives and Labour delegates descend on these conferences from around the country to listen to their leaders and submit proposals for local issues. These are as much social as political events, and attract huge media interest. The rest of the country stifles a collective yawn, tuning in briefly only to hear the top leaders.
This last weekend, it was the turn of the Conservative Party to set out its stall in Birmingham. As usual, Boris Johnson stole the limelight with his naked ambition to topple Theresa May and become prime minister. Despite his buffoonery, he remains the most popular Tory leader, but polls have repeatedly confirmed that even many of his fans would prefer to have May at the helm through the Brexit negotiations. And while many see him as clever, more see him as shallow and unprincipled.
So when May emerged on to the stage to address her party members, she decided to do something that would upstage Johnson, and put to rest her image of a stiff, awkward politician characterised by her media nickname of “Maybot”, an amalgam of May and robot. Thus, she strutted out of the wings on to centre stage to the strains of ‘Dancing Queen’, the hit number from the movie Mamma Mia! For a British PM (or any other prime minister) to be behaving in such an undignified manner at an important public event would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. And yet she was greeted with gusto by the party faithful. Clearly we are in an era of sound-bites and made-for-TV imagery in a world that is rapidly dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.
The speech itself was interesting in that May made many promises that obviously could only be kept if the Conservatives were returned to power in the next election due in 2020. Her most important pledge was to end the unpopular austerity policies launched by the Tories when they came to power in 2010. This does not mean that the British economy has suddenly turned the corner, or fixed its finances, the goal of the austerity policies of the last decade. But it is a major departure for the Tories in the public perception where they have traditionally been seen as the “nasty party” that is in thrall to business interests, and out of touch with the people and their plight under the onerous cuts in public expenditure imposed by the Tories.
Johnson is not alone in wanting fresh elections: at the Labour conference held in Brighton on the previous weekend, Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, attacked the government’s shambolic preparation for the Brexit talks and the exit from the EU, now only six months away. If the Conservatives can’t handle this crucial task, he said in effect, they should step aside for a party that can. Corbyn’s speech was assured and full of radical departures from the status quo. His pledge to renationalise water companies that had been privatised some thirty years ago was clearly popular. What Britain has seen is constantly rising water bills while the senior executives of the privatised water companies get obscene salaries and bonuses. Perhaps the most popular policy announced by Labour in the past is the renationalisation of the railways. This shift in attitude became more marked after a summer of massive delays and train cancellations. Many who commuted to London for work lost their jobs, and crowded railway platforms became the norm for months. Public fury has still not subsided, and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, is probably the most unpopular politician in Britain today.
For the business community, it was the shadow chancellor’s speech that sent tremors down the spine. John McDonnell has always been seen as being to the left of Corbyn; indeed, he is viewed as Labour’s enforcer and is called “Big Mac” by the media. His stated policy for redistributing power and money to the working class envisions putting workers of companies with over 250 employees on the board of directors. But he doesn’t stop here: workers would be entitled to dividends of up to 500 pounds. Anything over that figure would go to the public exchequer. There was a howl in the right-wing media that predicted the collapse of the economy if this measure were put into effect. They forget the role of company directors who permitted the financial crash of 2008, an event that continues to cast its shadow over the British economy.
The one controversy that did not surface during the Labour conference was the summer-long bickering over the anti-Semitism charges that have wracked the party for months. Corbyn, a lifelong crusader against all kinds of discrimination, was accused of promoting anti-Jewish sentiments and members within Labour. Critics dredged out old footage of Corbyn attending solidarity events with his Palestinian friends. To his credit, Corbyn said in his speech that when he became prime minister, he would recognise Palestine as a state. I can imagine the Israeli embassy in London gearing up to support the Conservatives if an early election is called. It would be Israel’s worst nightmare for a major European country to recognise the Palestinian state.
But it is Brexit that continues to dominate British politics. Most people are now so bored of the subject that they wish it would be over and done with, one way or the other. The prospect of cancelled flights between Britain and mainland Europe, as well as disrupted food and medical supplies, continue to haunt Whitehall. All this while the Brexit and Remain wings of the ruling Tory party are locked in mortal combat.
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2018