For the politically homeless, neither of the two major party conferences last week will have offered refuge.
In recent days, the Conservative party conference – held in Manchester in a not-so-subtle attempt to demonstrate the party’s connection to their new northern following – has been referred to as “the Boris Johnson show”, with a great deal of puff and posturing but a dearth of policy. Having recently presided over shortages of fuel, delays caused by COVID and post-Brexit bureaucracy, and backsliding on manifesto commitments by raising taxes on National Insurance, the conference arguably did little to appeal to those outside the core Tory voting base.
Even so, throughout his career, the prime minister has demonstrated a remarkable ability to defy political gravity which shows little sign of faltering. Despite a brief resurgence for Labour last month, Johnson has continuously managed to maintain his party’s lead in the polls due in part to a positive, can-do attitude and in part to an ability to adapt his ideology based on the political climate. To his most loyal supporters he is the man who finally delivered Brexit, having reached out to those who previously felt left behind by the political elite.
However, all of this could be different if Her Majesty’s Opposition were seen by many as a credible alternative. At the Labour conference in Brighton, leader Keir Starmer overcame his hecklers to give a measured and calm performance. It was a testament to the divided state the Labour Party is currently in that the strongest criticism of Starmer came from his own party’s left-wing. By ignoring the loud voices, the Labour leader demonstrated his commitment to purging the party of the extremism that turned voters away in 2019.
However, one problem with Starmer’s Labour remains a failure to prove what they actually do stand for, rather than what they are not. They are determined to prove that they are not the Corbynite left, who currently seem to do a better job of undermining their own party than they do of opposing the government. Nor are they the Conservatives, who have at the same time managed to embrace big government expenditure while living up to their reputation as the “Nasty Party” whose policy hits the poor the hardest. What is the point of Keir Starmer’s Labour? After last week’s party conference, many are none the wiser.
Arguably, this equally applies to the Conservatives. Johnson’s rhetoric at the conference sought to differentiate them from the fiscally irresponsible Labour Party, whilst coming off the back of a pandemic during which billions were spent on faulty PPE, an eighteen month-long furlough scheme and a test-and-trace system that achieved next to nothing. Ultimately, for any government and especially one dealing with several major crises at once, it is not good enough that the Tories’ USP is simply not being Labour.
One man who could disrupt the political climate in the near future is Andy Burnham. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, who spent time around the Tory conference lobbying the government for greater investment in his city’s public transport network, has consistently done a better job of scrutinising the government’s “levelling up” policy than most throughout the pandemic. Burnham is ambitious and popular among his electorate, and has not ruled out another bid to be party leader in the future.
If Burnham were to one day lead his party, one could reasonably suggest that he might drag Labour back somewhat from its current electoral misfortune. For one thing, he has repeatedly demonstrated his care for those ignored by the government; more so than a good deal of the rest of his party. In Labour’s current state, it may never be able to form itself into a solid unit again, let alone scrape together enough votes to defeat the Conservatives. However judging by Burnham’s actions in recent months, the man dubbed “King of the North” may be the one who can win over disaffected voters.
For now though, the respective party conferences in 2021 continue to demonstrate that each party is out of touch with the electorate. Whether it is the two warring factions of Labour trying repeatedly to undermine each other, or the Tories’ empty gestures towards their voters in what was once the Red Wall, there remains little to be enthusiastic about heading into the next general election.
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