Marching on Labour

Today was another hectic day at conference. Aren’t they all?

Caroline Lucas gave a superb keynote speech this morning. Always brilliant when she talks about the Labour government’s disgraceful and immoral foreign policy, she demanded that the whole Labour Party be called to account for the war - not just Blair.

Conference was slightly depleted today because lots of Greens have travelled to Manchester to join the huge anti-war march. They are picketing the Labour party conference, which is starting as our’s winds down. Earlier on, in her speech, Caroline had rightly pointed out that Greens are not that interested in the Labour leadership fuss. It drives us mad that people think Brown might be any different to Blair - as believable as Cameron creating an entire new Tory Party with a flick of his fringe.

The rest of my day has really been all about energy. Not expecting an immediate switch to a Green government we are spending a lot of time this year campaigning to change the government’s cosy relationship with nuclear power - whether it’s being wielded through dangerous weapons or used as an excuse not to get serious about saving energy and developing green technologies. The likely renewal of Trident is a particularly urgent problem.

This afternoon we had our first proper rehearsal for Faslane365 (the Greens are joining the Scottish Greens for a 2-day blockade of the nuclear submarine base later this year). Weeks of work fiddling around with props, and detailed planning worthy of the kind of military operation we’re totally opposed to, came off smoothly as a big gang of Greens came down to the sea front and did rather a good job of looking like a nuclear submarine. Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie came along to join us. He has already been arrested in 2004 for taking part in a blockade at Faslane, but says the Scottish police were very nice – interesting because I’m used to dealing with the Met.

My final event of the day, and the last formal event I’ll be involved in this conference has just finished: a fringe event about how we can change energy policy from the ground up by working with local councils to bring in small-scale renewable and combined heat and power (CHP) generation plants.

CHP can use a range of fuels, including fossil fuels, but saves a huge amount of energy by using both the heat and electricity generated in the plant in local buildings. Tom Tibbits our energy spokesperson pointed out that this is actually an old idea that is well worth revisiting and that Battersea Power Station in South London was originally built to both generate electricity and provide cheap heat to thousands of local residents.

Nowadays, CHP can be done without seriously affecting air quality and on a much smaller scale and (for now) the government is also providing grants to help councils and developers put it in. The money committed is pathetic (just £80 million compared with potentially £25 billion to be spent renewing Trident) so a key feature of our energy campaign is for our activists to help get as many grants taken up by local projects as possible, so that the funds are used up and the government has to admit that its energy policy is out of touch with what ordinary people want. We’ll see. There are also householder grants for renewable energy so apply now.

Well, that’s it from the Green conference. I think the coherence of this blog has declined in direct proportion to the amount of sleep I’ve had and the number of events I’ve been organising each day, so congratulations if you have managed to read this far in less than total confusion. Next week back to ‘normal’ life as a 4×4 campaigner.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide