One party that will be looking forward to Conference season more than others will be the Liberal Democrats, whose unity and cohesion has been unparalleled in England as the only party not to hold a leadership contest this summer. Leader Tim Farron’s aim of making the party more electable may become less of a burden if more can be done to entice Labour moderates to defect. The Progressive Alliance touted in recent months is unlikely to come to fruition, but the Lib Dem conference may convince those seeking a united party to follow.
Three months ago the Labour conference seemed set to provide the biggest headline, with the culmination of the leadership election. With the challenge from Owen Smith apparently diminishing by the day, the conference will likely serve as a re-coronation for Jeremy Corbyn, just over a year since his first leadership victory.
The Labour conference has already had a rocky road to date, with issues about security and the serious potential for the Momentum counter conference to overshadow the main stage. A victory for Corbyn will likely see most of these issues forgotten… at least by Corbyn’s supporters.
The Westminster press are likely to focus heavily on the potential vote on shadow cabinet elections. The return of selection by MP’s or even the Party membership could have significant repercussions for Corbyn. The leader will be left in a serious dilemma if key allies like John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, or Clive Lewis fail to make the list, or are pipped to the top of the poll by moderates and even Blairites. How to keep his key allies in the top positions will be a deciding factor for Corbyn, as appointments or ring-fencing of positions for his friends will hand his opponents an easy victory, to go along with their new personal electoral mandates.
For Theresa May, the Conservative conference offers a poetic opportunity to return to Birmingham, the site of her fateful first campaign speech during the short lived Conservative Party leadership contest. The keynote speech should give a greater indication of what Mayism and an “economy that works for all” will look like and perhaps distract from the simmering rows on Brexit and Grammar Schools. The balancing act for Theresa May will not only be to bridge the growing divides within her party, but also to provide a vision for the Party that papers over the perceived faults of the former Rt Hon Member for Witney.
North of the Border, the SNP conference could not come at a worse time for Nicola Sturgeon. Increasing opposition to a second referendum, the revelation that further devolution could lead to a budget cut of 6% and a failure to deliver a £178million computer system to make Subsidy payments to farmers, have created significant tensions, that could likely derail the minority government. The SNP’s dominance of Scottish politics in recent years is likely to be enough to help the party weather the storm, but the resurgence of Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson, could come back to haunt the SNP at next year’s local elections. For now the focus will surely be on sustaining some positive headlines, at least through Conference season.
For these parties, conference season could provide a major turning point, an opportunity to take a breath and recalibrate after a summer of division and dire headlines, or simply a chance to recruit new members. However of course it may all end in calamity, with Labour’s divisions left unresolved, the Conservatives turned bitter and divided and the legend of Nicola significantly dented.