Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

What Britain's Political Conference Season Has Taught Us

  • Referendums Cameron and Sturgeon try not to mention too much
  • One-party states, Internet disruption and embarrassment

Britain’s political party conference season came to an end on Saturday with the close of the Scottish National Party’s annual gathering in Aberdeen. After four weeks of speeches, discussion panels and fringe meetings in five different towns and cities, what have we learned?

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

Britain: One-Party State

David Cameron’s Conservative Party has a majority in Parliament, but only a small one: 16 seats. That means, in theory, that the prime minister can lose any vote if just nine of his 330 lawmakers defy him: and there are many more potential rebels among the Tories than that. A tightly organized opposition could cause him real trouble.

Fortunately for Cameron, the main opposition Labour Party is in chaos. A vote on George Osborne’s new fiscal rules, something the chancellor of the exchequer put before Parliament only to embarrass Labour, succeeded without trouble on Wednesday. Even on this measure, something the entire Labour Party opposed, new leader Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t take all his lawmakers with him: almost one in 10 abstained.

Scotland: One-(Different)-Party State

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP also faces difficulties, at least in theory. It has been in government in Scotland for more than eight years, the point at which voters tend to notice that not everything is working as well as they would wish. One of her members of the U.K. House of Commons had to resign from the parliamentary party last month over a police investigation into her property dealings. The head of Police Scotland quit over separate issues.

A tightly organized opposition could cause the SNP real trouble in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections. Fortunately for Sturgeon, the Scottish Labour Party is in even more chaos than its national counterpart. It has gone from being the dominant party north of the border with England to suffering a near-wipeout in the U.K. Parliament elections in May and has no answer to winning back the voters it lost to the SNP over the independence referendum.

“People have been saying that the SNP have peaked since 2007,” said David Torrance, Sturgeon’s biographer. “The peak just keeps getting higher.”

Elephants in the Room

The distance between engaged supporters and the mass of unengaged voters is a difficulty for all parties. With both the Tories and the SNP, the problem was evident in the discussion, or lack of it, about two different referendums.

The vote on leaving the European Union, which has to take place at some point by the end of 2017, is the single most important political, economic and diplomatic decision facing the U.K. government, but it merited only 321 words in Cameron’s conference speech in Manchester. The reason he didn’t want to talk about it was clear from the conference fringes, where, at meeting after meeting, activists discussed how to secure an exit vote -- the opposite of what the prime minister aims to deliver.

There was a similar issue with the SNP: Sturgeon’s activists want to have another crack at an independence referendum, but she knows that if it were held tomorrow, she’d lose. So talk of another vote hung over the fringes, but was muted on the platform.

News You Can Choose

One of the features that Corbyn shares with Sturgeon and the U.K. Independence Party’s Nigel Farage is a passionate online fanbase. The Internet doesn’t simply allow them to connect with and validate each other at a speed that would have been impossible a decade ago, it also allows them to select information that confirms their world views.

Denunciations of “mainstream media” were common to all these parties’ meetings. The SNP conference was heavy with complaints about bias from the state broadcaster, the BBC, with one delegate denouncing its weather maps for consistently showing Scotland as smaller than England (Scotland’s land mass is 60 percent of England’s, something the delegate didn’t accept).

Politics Is Harder Than It Looks

The political phenomenon of the season was undoubtedly Corbyn’s journey from 100/1 outsider to overwhelming winner of the Labour leadership contest. Much of his campaign turned on his “unspun” qualities, even his slogan of “Straight Talking, Honest Politics.” His victory took even his own team by surprise, and it shows.

Having barely even had contact with the leadership of Labour over the past three decades, they are now working out, step by step, how to lead a party in the modern age -- all under the close scrutiny of the public eye. Policy decisions have been announced and then reversed. Appearances have been canceled. Shadow cabinet members have denounced their leader’s statements.

If Labour needs a reminder of why professionalism matters, a new book, “Why the Tories Won: The Inside Story of the 2015 Election” by Tim Ross, sets out how, to deliver victory, Cameron’s team focused ruthlessly and with great effect on a few simple messages.

So sometimes Labour’s new politics can be, as the party’s Treasury spokesman, John McDonnell, told Parliament on Wednesday, explaining his U-turn on Osborne’s fiscal rules: “Embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing.”

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