Each party conference was marked by a headline catching bribe for the voters. Nick Clegg’s was child care. George Osborne made an unfunded promise to freeze fuel duty and most tempting of all Ed Miliband went to war with the gas and electricity companies.
But we shouldn’t be distracted by these give-aways. We need to remember what the Chancellor said about the economy. The battle to turn it round was “not even close to being over.” So the downward pressure on public sector spending would continue. Within a day the Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson was warning that within two years the city would only be able to run mandatory services. Other councils across the North privately fear the same thing.
I have attended a dozen fringe meetings in Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester over the last three weeks. The one that made the deepest impression on me was one addressed by Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Here are some of the startling observations he made. It will be 2030 before we get debt levels back to where they were in 2008. By next year we will only be half way to budget balance. Total spending is not falling. In the past we have been used to two years of cuts, soon we will have had eight.
People at the fringe meeting called for party conferences to conduct fundamental debates about public sector pay, tax levels and the funding of health and schools and not to be occasions for a Dutch auction of promises about relatively small amounts of money. Some hope.
With the exception of the Lib Dems, party conferences are a showcase for Ministers and Shadow Ministers and an opportunity for lobbyists and journalists to get out of London for a few weeks. It was particularly noticeable in Manchester how the Tory grass root members have been marginalised. That may explain their enthusiasm for the meeting in Manchester Town Hall addressed by Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader.
So where has the conference season left us? Ed Miliband is strengthened by his promise to freeze gas and electricity prices. People understand the concept and it chimes with his campaign on squeezed living standards.
Nick Clegg has got his party used to its role in government. No more jokes about sandals and beards. The party now favours fracking, nuclear power and austerity. Vince Cable is a somewhat diminished figure.
Blue water has opened up for the Conservatives. Choosing the conference slogan “For Hard working People” Cameron staked out his position and with Ed Miliband moving to the left, we might have an old fashioned election battle.
TORY CONFERENCE GOSSIP.
Tory councillors from Lancashire and West Cheshire at the conference were distracted by noises off. GEOFF DRIVER, leader of the Conservatives at County Hall narrowly avoided a no confidence vote by his own group just after conference. Meanwhile MIKE JONES leadership of West Cheshire and Chester Council is hanging in the balance. Councillors of all parties last night rejected plans for a major student village development on the outskirts of Chester. Although councillors made their decision on planning grounds the issue has deeply divided the ruling Conservative group. More on both these issues on my blog next week.
UKIP are expected to get at least two MEPs in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber next May, so top slot on the party list is more important than ever. Merseyside based MEP JACKIE FOSTER has topped the poll among Conservative North West members, with SAJ KARIM MEP in second place. The Tories will have a real battle on with UKIP to get a third MEP but that would be Penrith farmer Kevin Beattie.
Tories in Hazel Grove are talking up their chances because, as forecast here recently, ANDREW STUNELL confirmed he would be standing down as Lib Dem MP. Will the new candidate, local woman Lisa Smart, be able to prevent the seat returning to the Tories after two decades?
And finally the Mayor of Oldham JOHN HUDSON (Tory Saddleworth South) says he’s not dismayed to lose high flying Chief Executive CHARLIE PARKER to Westminster Council. Parker is credited with turning the council around. Hudson believes they will get some good applicants on the back of that.