Silly Season in the United Kingdom

Pastoral mists, mellow fruitfulness and snivelling head colds are not the only signs of the end of summer here in Britain. For decades, a distinctive peculiarity of the political scene in the United Kingdom has been party conference season. Always a sure sign of autumn’s arrival, these events annually saw the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democratic party faithful descending on an English Victorian seaside town over consecutive September weeks. Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton—the venues mysteriously rotated so that every town got a bite at the cherry—a week’s post-summer extra trade for hoteliers and pub owners.

In days gone by, autumn conferences would be the locus of fierce policy battles in public and behind-the-scenes intrigue. Battle lines were drawn, and members would often challenge party policy, regardless of whether the party in question held parliamentary power or not.

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Labour party conferences always featured the trades unions, mocked by the Tory-dominated national press for their bloc votes and leftist leanings. And Tories, as members of the Conservative Party are called, were reliably, well, Tories, while it was never completely clear what Lib Dems were—soi-disant though unlikely alternative governments-in-waiting. The conferences always culminated in the leader’s speech, while attentive commentators scanned for signs of the next rising star (or of someone’s political demise). There had been little similarity to the U.S. tradition of the party convention, seen from this side of the ocean as no more than the ceremonial anointing of the chosen presidential contender and running mate.

It’s all different now. Conducted in modern city-center conference halls, not charmingly decrepit Victorian hotels, U.K. party conferences are increasingly adopting U.S.-style political choreography. Every effort goes into delivering a slick, telegenic spectacle with no mistakes or gaffes. Proceedings match the daily news cycle or, better, dictate it. Every speech and every contribution from the floor is carefully planned for maximum media impact; spontaneity is risky.

How refreshing it is, then, in a particularly eccentric and British way, that things can still go terrifically wrong.

This year prime ministerial hopeful Ed Milliband, the Labour Party leader, is struggling to recover from a bad conference. Advised to speak without notes to bolster his reputation for economic competence, his performance was a nightmare; he simply forgot the section on addressing the U.K. deficit. Platform speakers at the following weeks’ Tory and Liberal Democratic conferences couldn’t resist this free gift. Labour’s bold move to recruit former Obama advisor David Axelrod clearly hasn’t worked out so far. The largely invisible Axelrod’s most noted contribution so far has been to misspell the party leader’s name.

Conservative Party planning took a knock, too. They suffered the surprise defection of two lawmakers to the rising U.K. Independence Party. Despite those losses, the Tories appear to have emerged from conference season in better shape than Labour. The Lib Dems, widely castigated for their ineffectual performance in coalition with Conservatives, look condemned to the political wilderness for a generation.

The upcoming U.K. general election, planned for May 7, 2015, sharpened minds this conference season. Fallout from the recent Scottish independence referendum had an impact as well. And the rise, in England at least, of the U.K.I.P. has the ruling Tory administration in more of a panic than the spin doctors would admit. The U.K.I.P.’s policy of withdrawal from the European Union has been countered by a Tory promise to hold an “in or out” referendum in the next parliament, should they win in May. That puts the European question back in center stage.

British E.U. membership has always been a pebble in the shoe of conservative British politics, even though the United Kingdom’s eventual accession in 1974 came about under a Tory prime minister, Edward Heath. Margaret Thatcher soothed Tory concerns with her hostile attitude to Europe. Now the U.K.I.P. is doing much the same, and Tories are worried.

So in London autumn is here; the leaves in Parliament Square and St. James Park are turning and the election campaign, officially only three weeks in the spring, has already begun. But will this year’s general election engage a cynical electorate? That might prove the most important question of all.

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