Each year, cynics argue that MPs have a long summer break and return to the Commons for under a fortnight before relocating to a posh conference centre to hear how great they are. The more level-headed people argue that MPs have a long summer break and return to the Commons for under a fortnight before relocating to a posh conference centre to hear how great they are, whilst giving the media sufficient substance to fill their political platforms with. It seems everyone’s a winner as the 2011 Conference Season kicks off. I am excited to have been given the amazing opportunity to write from each of the three party conferences over the next few weeks, but I feel that before I begin the coverage I should scribble down a few things that I personally hope the recess will clear up. I want to briefly cover eight points that I think each party needs to sort out before MPs return to business on Monday 10th October.
1) Arab Spring
Right now, when people look back at the history books of 2011, they will be heavily dominated by the Arab Spring. I cannot see this changing any time soon so, as much as I’m sure the temptation to discuss the electricity pylons debate is great, I’m pretty sure that there is no more relevant conversation to be had at all three conferences this year. Ed Miliband needs to stress the important of a united front between the opposition and government parties, because parliament needs to work together on this. If that means prominent opposition figures losing the occasional opportunities to criticise the coalition’s approach to international relations, then so be it. Nevertheless, I feel that it is vital that the Conservative Party ministers use their key-note speeches to stress how they think the conflict of Libya is different to that of Syria, because I am yet to hear a valid answer to this common query. I am hoping that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats take the opportunity at their conference in Birmingham to discuss the future of our support in Libya.
The summer has proved that the economic situation is very unstable right now and extremely complex. However, the desired approach by party economic experts at the conferences only needs to be basic. Naturally, as coalition partners, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats need to stick together when making speeches that may directly affect the markets. My hope is that George Osborne will make his general ideological approach to the economy more clear for the electorate to understand, and that Danny Alexander will explain how prominent a role he and his party have in making decision at 11 Downing Street. My biggest ask is reserved for Labour, though. As Opposition Leader and Shadow Chancellor, Eds Miliband and Balls need to stop the constant barrage of criticism they hurl in Osborne’s direction and start offering specific alternatives to his decisions. General put-downs and political point scoring when analysing the economy will not help them look like a legitimate potential government.
The biggest job here for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats is to assure members and voters alike that free schools will genuinely remain free to attend under their watch. At the same time, it will be important for the Conservatives to stop talking about their educational successes so far and discuss the expansion of the growing academy system. Michael Gove has done reasonably well so far in his role, but there is still a huge amount left to be done. I suggest a radical overhaul of the national curriculum, but I’m not holding my breath. Finally, Labour need to stop banging on about what they did for the education system during their time in power from 1997 to 2010. Yes, the initiatives they began are generally still in use today, and going through seven Education Secretaries in thirteen years is extremely impressive, but let’s look forward.
Ever since the Deputy Prime Minister led his party towards a slightly less than impressive run in this year’s English Council, Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly Elections, he’s had to be seen to stand up for a more liberal approach in the coalition partnership. From day one, it has been obvious that the key to this has been to be seen having an active involvement in rewriting the healthcare reforms. He needs to shake-off the lapdog satirical image that the right wing press has created of him, and to do this he must show he will not be walked over when creating the reforms to the NHS. Health Secretary Andrew Lansley will be losing an equal amount of sleep over the reforms he originally wrote, as the consultation period he ordered is well over and professionals from the industry are looking at him for the future at the Tory conference in Manchester. As with the economy, Labour need to focus on alternatives, not criticisms.
5) Parliament Reform
This seems to have been Nick Clegg’s project over the past year. His party fought hard for it when brokering the coalition agreement, and he’s not planning on waving goodbye to it as quickly as he did to the Alternative Vote. His Lords Reforms are surprisingly radical, and would undoubtedly cause the British political system to revolutionise, should the bill be passed. The Liberal Democrats need to talk this up at their conference, and keep it in the public eye. Meanwhile, David Cameron needs to win over the substantial number of Conservative MPs who do not currently agree with the proposals, and the coalition partners also need to discuss how to convince the House of Lords to pass the changes. Ed Miliband needs to specifically clarify the position he is moving his party to on the Lords reforms. He regularly mentions parliamentary reform generally, but is yet to talk about it in a specific manner.
6) Phone Hacking
My request under this heading is the most straightforward of all the list; I simply want all three parties to accept that they were wrong to let the media control and manipulate parliament in the way that it did, before looking ahead to the future.
So much for a quiet summer, eh? The uproar following the unrest on our streets in August seemed to be more heated than the fires themselves, but it’s vital that the debates keep burning. The national conversation that Ed Miliband called for so loudly in the week after the riots is just as important now as is what then, and I really hope he uses the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool this month to debate the key issues of our country. The LibDems can play their part too, by questioning what can be done to prevent those despicable scenes from repeating themselves. If they insist, the Conservatives can review and examine every single inch of detail into how the disobedience was dealt with, but no matter how many tiny exceptions they discover, it’s blatant that the Police and Fire Service did a fantastic job.
8) Scottish Independence
As Alex Salmond hesitates over the precise promise of devolution he sounded so definite over during the Scottish Parliamentary Elections earlier this year, the leaders of the big three Westminster parties should firmly voice their opinions. David Cameron has made his ambition of a continually United Kingdom clear, and I am presuming that Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg will follow in foot. Nevertheless, there’s no better time than the present to spell out the risks of Scottish devolution.