British Party Leaders Speak to Core Voters at Conferences

The Conservative and Labour conferences were both aimed at shoring up traditional party bases.

London mayor Boris Johnson waves at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England, October 9, 2012
London mayor Boris Johnson waves at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England, October 9, 2012 (Andrew Parsons)

The Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham that ended on Wednesday was, in many ways, remarkably similar to Labour’s conference in Manchester a week earlier. Both British party leaders — the Conservative prime minister David Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband — did less to attract the “floating voter” in their speeches and more to shore up and consolidate their traditional party bases.

Hence in Cameron’s speech, there was talk of tax cuts and tougher rhetoric on immigration. While the other week in Manchester, there was talk of “saving” the National Health Service and state intervention in markets that are seen as broken, such as energy and the railways.

The reason for this is that the United Kingdom Independence Party, currently polling at 14 percent, is being taken seriously. The two major parties seem to believe that they can win a majority if their core voters stay with them, no matter which way the “floating voters” go.

This could be a dangerous game but we will have to wait until the general election in May to find out the results.

There was considerable difference in opinion on how to tackle UKIP in Birmingham, reflected in ideological tugs of war at fringe events where issues such as the lack of Conservative representatives in the north of England and the national housing shortage were discussed. Those on the right of the party argued for “UKIP-lite” policies while those to the center advocated “one nation” conservatism in the vein of former leaders Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan who allowed for some state intervention in the markets.

Overall, however, by the end of the final day of conference, the mood, if still tense, was more optimistic than it had been on the first day when one lawmaker, reflecting on the polls, predicted Labour could quite comfortably win a majority. Cameron’s strong speech appears to have given the Tories more confidence and if they were still in any doubt, a YouGov poll released on Thursday showed them overtaking the socialists by 1 percentage point.

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