September saw the start of this year’s Autumn conference season, kicked off by the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth (16-19th September). Ten days later UKIP held their conference in Torquay.
Leadership was to be a feature of both conferences, to a greater or lesser degree. Where the Liberal Conference saw the return to the forefront of Sir Vince Cable, recently appointed as leader, the conference itself was policy driven. In contrast, the conference of the party on completely the opposite end of the Brexit spectrum, the UK Independence Party, took an entirely different form, dominated by their leadership contest.
The Liberal Democrats Conference
A key feature of the Lib Dems conference was its desire to reduce inequality with regards to the hardships faced by young people in contrast to the perks enjoyed by older generations. This perhaps came as a surprise to many who view the party as appealing more to what is known as the “grey vote”.
MP Norman Lamb, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, cited the example of his free medical prescription (one of the perks enjoyed by elderly people regardless of wealth). Holding it up he asked, “How can you possibly justify this perk when an 18-year-old with a long-term condition, like cystic fibrosis, has to pay for theirs?”.
There were a number of key policies targeting the young. They set out their aim to tackle the barriers facing those who are trying to get on the housing ladder by placing higher taxes on foreign property speculators and second home owners.
The party seems to have taken a U-turn with regards to its stance on tuition fees and are seeking to address the topical issue of student debts, which has also subsequently been discussed at the Labour and Conservatives conferences. Whereas before they were calling for their abolition, Sir Vince explained that he feels that high-earning graduates should pay more tax rather than relying on the population as a whole to fund university degrees and vocational qualifications. As many people do not attend university and obtain these qualifications he deemed it unfair that they should pay for them. He called for the term “graduate tax” to be used in the place of “student debts” as it is simply another way of taxing the wealthy and thus reducing inequality, and went on to argue that the annual salary of £21,000 at which graduates begin to pay these taxes should increase.
We saw Sir Vince Cable speaking as leader at the party conference for the first time. He said that he was “impatient for success” and hoped to become successful by offering a mixture of “hope and realism”. Some commentators argued that he lacked the energy and presence of previous leaders Nick Clegg and Tim Farron and was rather more serious and sensible. That said, he had no problem winning applause from his audience. The big question remains: will he be able to draw support from outside of his already faithful Lib Dems supporters?
Finally, the Lib Dems stand by their view on Brexit, a view that is not shared now by any of the other main political parties. Sir Vince Cable warned that leaving the European Union would be an act of “masochism” and that Brexit was a “looming disaster”. In his view, the market and customs union are “essential for trade”. The “pain [of Brexit] will mainly be felt by young people who overwhelmingly voted to remain.” The party wants a second referendum to be held after negotiations have ceased, allowing the British public one more chance to change their minds, but this is generally opposed by the other parties on the basis that this could encourage those negotiating on the behalf of the EU to give us a worse deal.
The UK Independence Party Conference
The UKIP conference was undoubtedly overshadowed by its leadership battle. That battle unsurprisingly sparked controversy, with a number of UKIP members threatening to walk out if Anne Marie Waters was elected as leader. An anti-Islam activist who is the director of Shariah Watch UK, she is herself a controversial figure, and would have taken the party in a very different direction to what we are expecting to see from the victorious leader, Henry Bolton.
Bolton does in fact have an interesting political background, having stood as a Lib Dems candidate in 2005 in Weybridge and Runnymede against the new chancellor Phillip Hammond, before joining UKIP in 2014. A self-proclaimed “expert in national borders, security, and foreign affairs” according to his website, he aims to “resume Nigel Farage’s legacy by restoring UKIP’s relevance and authority.”
We also got to see their new branding, which included their new slogan “For the Nation”, and their new logo which received criticism from many who noticed it looked quite… familiar. Among its critics was Marina Hyde, who wrote in the Guardian, “What sort of party of the people can’t even recognise the bleeding Premier League logo when it sees it?”
Despite having very contradictory ideas, the two groups seem to be facing a similar problem: how to make themselves relevant. Both parties’ overriding aim is increasing their popularity and support. UKIP is trying to restore some order, having elected its fifth leader in the space of just twelve months. Although Lib Dems have twelve seats and UKIP don’t have any, an Opinium poll carried out on the 18th September, Lib Dems and UKIP each received 5% support, showing that they are experiencing the same amount, or lack, of success.
UKIP have struggled to maintain support and enthusiasm since the vote to leave the EU because that appeared to be their sole purpose as a party. Sir Vince Cable on the other hand said during the Lib Dems conference that he did not want the party to be seen as a “reverse UKIP”. This is not only a reflection of UKIP as a one-policy party, but also of the Liberal Democrats. Both are struggling to sell themselves to the public as a real alternative to Labour and the Conservatives.
With UKIP still without an MP, and the Liberal Democrats trying to claw their way back after losing 45 seats since 2010, both conferences raised the question of what sort of future each party had.
By Lucy Higginbotham