U.K. Conservatives gather to woo wary voters

Sep 28, 2013, 8:45 AM EDT
FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 file photo, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons for the weekly session of Prime Minister's Question Time in London. Cameron's Conservatives begin their four-day conference on Sunday Sept. 29 in Manchester, northwest England, following gatherings earlier this month of the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)
(AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)

LONDON (AP) — If a political commentator has brawled with a protester on a seaside promenade, and a lawmaker has been suspended after calling women in his party "sluts," it must be political conference season in Britain.

Every autumn, the country's political clans gather in holiday resorts or provincial cities for meetings that are part pep rally, part campaign pitch and part political sideshow. And with all of the country's leading political players going through rough patches, they need all the conference cheer they can muster.

Britain won't hold a national election until May 2015, and electoral campaigns are short — a matter of weeks rather than months. The conferences, which get heavy media coverage, give the parties a rare midterm chance to grab the attention of the electorate — for good or for ill.

"They are great opportunities, but there are dangers if things go slightly awry," said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham.

Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives begin their four-day conference on Sunday in Manchester, northwest England, following gatherings this month of the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP.

Like Britain's economy — slammed by the 2008 financial crisis and now spluttering along with a growth rate below 1 percent — none of the parties is exactly riding high.

Cameron suffered a shock defeat last month when Parliament rejected his attempt to authorize British military intervention in Syria — a reversal that eroded both his status on the world stage and his authority among party lawmakers. Meanwhile, the rising right-wing, Euroskeptic party UKIP is nibbling away at his electoral support.

Ahead of the Conservatives' conference, Cameron sought to score some political points with plans for a tax break for married couples. The new policy, announced Saturday, would be worth roughly 200 pounds ($321) a year to about 4 million couples.

Fielding said Cameron's task when he makes his big conference speech on Wednesday is straightforward: "To get the message across: 'The economy is mending. Labour was to blame and we're fixing it.'"

"The only story that is going to win them the next election is 'We have turned the corner,'" Fielding said.

The two other big parties arguably have trickier messages to communicate.

Cameron's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, favor centrist economics and social liberalism. But they are demoralized after three years in a government that has slashed spending, curbed services and cut welfare benefits in a bid to rein in the deficit.

Party leader Nick Clegg, who is also the deputy prime minister, rallied the troops by painting the Lib Dems as the Goldilocks party — not too left, not too right — that tempers the excesses of both Conservatives and Labour.

He told party members to "feel proud that we are right here, in the center of government and the center of British politics, standing up for the millions of people in the middle."

Labour, which governed for 13 years until losing power in 2010 after the global banking crisis, is struggling to persuade voters it should be trusted with the economy again. Opponents have successfully painted its leader, Ed Miliband, as ineffectual. (His nickname is Wallace, evoking the cheese-loving plasticine companion of genius dog Gromit).

But Miliband fought back at Labour's conference earlier this week, making a headline-grabbing promise to freeze energy bills for almost two years and saying the party would fight for ordinary Britons whose standard of living has failed to rebound with the economic recovery.

"They used to say a rising tide lifted all boats. Now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts," Miliband said.

The price-freeze proposal was loudly condemned by energy firms and the Conservatives, but veteran political analyst John Curtice said it was an astute move, a classic example of a conference strategy going right.

"The Labour Party has succeeded in grabbing the political agenda and made waves," said Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde.

"(The message) is very, very clear: 'Your cost of living is being affected by energy prices, we're going to do something about it.'"

But conferences are unpredictable things, and it's not always the speeches that make the news.

Labour's conference in the resort town of Brighton was overshadowed by the release of a book by a former spin doctor dredging up past backstabbing and skullduggery. And there was a brief media frenzy when the book's publisher, political blogger Iain Dale, scuffled on-camera with Stuart Holmes, a protester who has a habit of waving his placard behind people doing live television interviews. Dale was given an official warning by police.

An even more spectacular derailment was suffered by UKIP, whose maverick image and Britain-first populism have brought growing support. The small party's conference this month was given national media coverage — coverage completely dominated by the moment when Godfrey Bloom, a UKIP European lawmaker, jokingly told a group of female party members they were "sluts."

The 63-year-old Bloom appeared to be using the word in its former meaning, denoting slobbery rather than promiscuity, but it didn't matter. The politician — who had previously been criticized for referring to developing nations as "Bongo Bongo Land" — was first suspended and then quit as a UKIP legislator.

The Conservatives' married couples tax break was a classic promise for a cash-strapped government: a sweetener to voters, but fairly inexpensive. It wouldn't start until late 2016, and Cameron can present it as both traditional and modern. It encourages marriage but is open to straight and gay couples alike.

Even if Cameron avoids gaffes and gets his message across, neither the Conservatives nor any other party have a clear path to victory in 2015.

The economy remains unpredictable. A year from now, Scotland holds an independence referendum, and a 'yes' vote would change Britain and its politics dramatically.

As it stands, Curtice said, polls put Labour ahead, but not by the nine or 10 points that, at this stage in the electoral cycle, would make them confident of victory.

"People are not that happy with the incumbent government," he said. "But the Labour Party has not really convinced them they are an alternative."


Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless