After a summer of ugly behaviour and tumult, can we expect the same from the politicians attending the forthcoming party conferences?
Probably not – which would be odd. After all this year has seen riots on the streets, the Prime Minister badly singed by Andy Coulson and Hackgate, the Lib Dems getting a shellacking at the local elections and serious doubts being expressed about Ed Miliband’s ability to become Prime Minister.
If you are looking for a bust up it may come at the first ever Labour conference to be held in Liverpool. Neil Kinnock made one of the best speeches ever heard at a party conference when he denounced the Militants controlling that city’s council. That was nearly 30 years ago and the city has now become “respectable”.
Ed Miliband is looking forhis “Clause Four” issue. Just as Tony Blair stamped his authority on the party by scrapping Labour’s promise to nationalise everything under the sun, the new leader has decided to bite the hand that fed him power in preference to his brother.
Projected into the leadership by the union vote while MPs and party members wanted David Miliband instead, Ed now wants to reduce the voting strength of the unions within the party.
This is not a new issue. They were making jokes about the block voting power of union barons back in the sixties.
Older readers will remember the sketch set at a small union meeting where the brothers couldn’t agree on whether they wanted tea or coffee. One general secretary cast six million votes for tea with fi ve million supporting coffee.
The amalgamation of many unions into giant organisations like Unite, Unison and the GMB has concentrated more power than ever into the hands of the few. More importantly Labour’s chronic fi nancial weakness has left it even more dependent on the unions for money.
Miliband’s proposals are expected to include reducing the power of the unions at conference, where they have 50 per cent of the vote. Just three general secretaries largely control about four-fi fths of that union voting power.
The question is does Ed Miliband have the authority that Blair had when he scrapped Clause Four? In 1994, after 15 years out of power, the party would have embraced a particular part of Tony’s anatomy if it would have helped.
Along the M62 in Manchester David Cameron will be hoping for a warmer welcome than he received at last year’s conference. Then the grass roots Tories were remarkably lukewarm considering Cameron had become the fi rst Tory Prime Minister in 13 years.
The failure to deliver outright power, or a referendum on our European Union membership, combined with all that “green stuff” means there’s a distance between Cameron and the right of his party who turn up to conference in droves.
They should be kinder this October. The Lib Dems have been the lightning conductor for voters’ anger, with the Tories actually making gains in the local elections. The tough line on rioters will convince some that Cameron isn’t Nick Clegg in disguise.
And so to the man himself. If any conference floor should have blood stains on it, surely it ought to be the Lib Dems.
With hundreds of councillors defeated in May and electoral reform off the agenda for a generation it looked initially that the Birmingham conference was going to be a bitter inquest with Clegg’s leadership on the line. It still might be, but since May there has been a minor recovery in the party’s fortunes.
On Hackgate the party was able to say, with conviction, that it never bowed the knee to Murdoch. The drive to differentiate itself from the Tories was partially successful over the health service reforms.
However the principal reason why Clegg may emerge bruised but not bowed from Birmingham is that the party is trapped in the Coalition for good or ill. Breaking it up now could lead to a General Election where the Lib Dems might be back to hiring a taxi to get all their MPs to Westminster.
So let’s look forward to these autumnal gatherings as we look forward to a game of conkers and not raise our expectations of excitement too high.