The Labour party conference, their priorities and the power of the media

Party conference season is often a time of great political plotting, posturing and blunders so will this year’s conferences hammer the last nail into in the coffin of either of the two main parties? Or will they give us a clearer sense of what the parties would do if they were to win the next General Election? A successful conference for Labour or equally a bad performance by the Conservatives could mean the outcome of the General Election is still very much up for grabs.

This week was the Labour party’s, possibly final, conference as a party in government and their chance to set out what they will do if the public decides to let them stay in power. In an attempt to celebrate their 12 years in power, there was a fair amount of praise for what they have achieved but some would argue not enough. Not least (many in the Cabinet argued) to convince the public to give them another chance and enough of a clear idea of what Labour stands for. But what did become clear was that in the run up to the General Election (now almost confirmed it will be in May next year) is that the centre ground is going to continue to be the battle ground. Brown’s speech, made an unashamed bid for this ground, revealing populist policy after populist policy designed to appeal to as many people as possible, even when this meant backing down on policies that Labour have spent millions of pounds on and staunchly defended such as ID cards.

A quick list of the main proposals:

  • More free childcare for poor families
  • Supervised networks for 16 and 17 year old single mothers
  • Tougher rules on anti-social behaviour
  • Tightening immigration points system
  • A referendum on electoral reform
  • The power to recall MPs
  • A formal confirmation that ID cards will not be mandatory
  • New local powers to limit 24-hour drink licenses
  • New national investment corporation
  • Law that the Government will spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid

Immigration and anti-social behaviour have long been key public concerns so Labour’s proposals that address these two issues are not a surprise. However, a return to populist policies has clear implications for the VCS. Many organisations may see issues that they have fought long and hard for and that Labour has been sympathetic to during their time in government, fade into the distance as they scrap for the centre ground. Organisations may want to think about how they can ensure issues central to their organisation do not get overridden by a return to longstanding public concerns or populist issues.  Does this mean spending more time on lobbying your local MPs or identifying ways to ensure your issues stay on the agenda of both parties? This may involve focusing on monitoring the services you deliver and making the case for the need for these services. Public attitudes and the media (e.g. see attitudes to immigrants and tolerance of antisocial behaviour) may become increasingly hostile to the groups such policies are aimed at. As a result, some VCOs may feel it is part of their role to work more closely with these groups in order to bridge tensions between them and those who are hostile to them to help dispel any fears or misperceptions. They may also need to represent, advocate and campaign more assertively on behalf of groups that may feel victimised. Can your organisation promote a more positive portrayal and understanding of these groups in the press and amongst the public, as well as to funders and policy makers?

However, it seems that Brown’s bid for the centre ground has not bought him the popularity he had hoped for. A short bounce mid week where Labour halved the Tory poll lead to seven points was dashed by the same tracker YouGov poll instead showing the re-establishment of a 14-point lead for the Conservatives. It is possible the findings are a blip or a reaction to the negative coverage of Brown following The Sun newspaper’s decision to ‘not win’ the election for Labour. But judging from Brown’s low ratings in the polls over the past two years since he’s been in power, it is unlikely that it is either of these two things. Have a look at these findings by Ipsos Mori for an overview of the public’s opinion of the party leaders and their parties, important issues facing the country, who they trust and their tolerance of cuts on public services.

The Sun’s decision to desert Labour was undoubtedly a long pre-meditated decision by The Sun, carefully planned to cause maximum discomfort. It underlines the power of the media to make or break parties as well as influence the public. With party conferences attended by the party members or the party faithful and rarely watched in full unless you’re the sort of person that is glued to BBC Parliament, the majority of the public depend on the media to filter and present them with the events and policies of the day. It is widely believed the Evening Standard’s campaign against Ken Livingstone whilst he was Mayor of London greatly contributed to his failure to be re-elected. YouGov asked people if they thought newspaper endorsements were important when it came to how people voted at the election. Opinion seemed to be that they were important (61%)…but to other people. Only time will tell whether The Sun holds the key to party in power but regardless The Sun and its readership represent a type of reader with a certain political ideology that both parties need on board if they are to win, even if Brown’s bid this time has failed.

So it’s the Conservatives’ turn next week. Will they manage to woo the media and the voters and more importantly will we get a clearer idea of what the party that is likely to form our next government would do? For now see this driver on the General Election and Conservative policies on social justice to get a better idea of what this might mean for the VCS and your organisation but we’ll be writing about the main headlines and what they mean for VCS next week. Some might suggest at this rate the Conservative’s actually don’t need to have a conference at all…

Last updated at 09:14 Wed 07/Oct/09.
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