A guide to the party conference season
The autumn meetings will take place against a backdrop of Brexit chaos
The party conference season is just around the corner - and this year’s events promise to be like no other.
The annual meetings normally allow members and representatives to debate and vote on policies, hear speeches from leaders and discuss topical issues.
But given the current Brexit chaos, the upcoming conferences may deviate from the standard format. The two main parties are both internally divided, while smaller parties are winning over voters with clearer standpoints on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
“Our politics is evidently in an unusually febrile state – the outcome of which is even more difficult to anticipate than usual,” says John Curtice in The Independent.
A snap general election is expected in the near future, despite MPs again rejecting Boris Johnson’s call on Monday for an early return to the polls. As such, “all political parties will use their forthcoming conferences to try to woo voters”, says The Times.
So what can we expect? Here is an overview of the main party conferences and what to expect.
Jo Swinson will head into her first party conference as leader this weekend, and will be asking members in Bournemouth to back a manifesto pledge to support the cancellation of Article 50.
“The Lib Dems have so far shied away from formally endorsing the revocation of Article 50, the mechanism under the EU’s Lisbon Treaty which kicked off Britain’s exit from the bloc,” notes PoliticsHome.
But Swinson this week told The Guardian: “Whenever the election comes, our position is clear and unequivocal. A majority Liberal Democrat government would not renegotiate Brexit, we would cancel it by revoking article 50 and remaining in the European Union.”
This year’s Labour conference will shape the vision of the main opposition party ahead of a likely general election.
“Pro-EU grassroots activists are hoping this month’s Labour conference will commit the leadership to backing Remain under all circumstances,” says Iain Watson at the BBC. And some senior figures have the same goal.
But while Labour has been “united in opposing a no-deal Brexit”, the party has been “less united over what policies to pursue during a general election campaign”, Watson adds.
One non-Brexit issue that looks likely to grab headlines in Brighton is a motion calling for “a commitment to integrate all private schools into the state sector”.
Ian Lavery, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, is endorsing the campaign, arguing that private schools are “incompatible” with Labour’s pledge to promote “social justice” in education, reports The Telegraph.
Boris Johnson was on the fringes of the party conference last year, when he laid out what was widely seen as a manifesto for a potential leadership bid. Now, he is in charge, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The prime minister has been accused of turning the Conservatives into the “Brexit Party, rebadged”, after removing the whip from 21 of his own MPs for rebelling against the Government, and testing the limits of British democracy in his determination to lead Britain out of the EU by 31 October.
The ruling party’s conference will be “very important” this year, says former Tory leader William Hague in an article for The Telegraph. “It will be the launch pad for an election, but also a powerful indicator of future philosophy and direction.”
The Times reports that No. 10 has been “scrambling” for “eye-catching policies” to announce at the meeting, after government advisers were told just weeks ago that the event was not a priority. The newspaper notes that “if Boris Johnson had succeeded in calling a general election, the autumn party conference would have been just one part of a wider campaign”.
Downing Street has rejected the claim that it is struggling for ideas, but a government source told The Times that “departments had been asked to come up with ‘bigger and better’ policies than in recent years ‘that are of actual interest to people’s lives’”.
The Green Party will hit the autumn conference season with added confidence in the wake of its EU election success in May. The number of Green MEPs more than doubled from three to seven as the party’s share of the vote increased by 4.6% to 12.5%.
Caroline Lucas, the Greens’ sole Westminster MP, “credited the Green Party’s messages prioritising action on the climate crisis and rejecting Brexit with delivering its best result in decades as it pushed the Tories into fifth place in England and Wales”, as The Guardian reported at the time.
The upcoming conference will reveal if this will be the party’s strategy going into the next general election.
The then-newly formed Brexit Party was also celebrating after the May elections, with 26 MEPs elected to the European Parliament.
Leader Nigel Farage is currently holding a “conference tour”, travelling through England and Wales, before arriving in London for a final evening event on 27 September.
The tour will see the former UKIP leader appearing alongside regional speakers for hour-long engagements at a total of ten locations. “We will be travelling across the length and breadth of the country, bringing our message to the regions, rather than demanding that everybody comes to us,” said Farage.