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Has conference season changed anything?

Last week, UK party conference season finished. This week, leading figures from various perspectives will tell us what happened & what it means. Today, War on Want Executive Director John Hilary and environmental activist Tara Clarke. Tomorrow, we'll have a feminist perspective.

John Hilary and Tara Clarke
28 October 2013
Caroline-Lucas-Leanne-Wood.jpg

Green MP Caroline Lucas and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, being arrested together blockading Faslane nuclear weapons base

John Hilary: foreign policy? Must do better

The 2013 conference season has been billed as the moment that party politics was reborn in Britain. Ed Miliband took the first steps to distance his Labour party from the Tories and Lib Dems, who in turn struggled heroically to distinguish themselves from each other. The Greens continued to establish their credentials as more than a single-issue party, the SNP girded its loins for next year’s independence referendum, and Plaid Cymru looked on enviously. All chuckled merrily as UKIP was unseated by the conference antics of its ‘outspoken’ MEP Godfrey Bloom.

When it comes to foreign policy, however, the mainstream parties remain far closer together – and not in a good way. A whistle-stop tour across five key issues shows how the smaller parties offer a welcome breath of fresh air.

Imperialist war

Miliband led the coup in the Commons that prevented Britain from launching yet another imperialist intervention, this time in the Syrian civil war. Yet that vote belied the fact that a majority of MPs would happily have backed military action if the government had handled the intelligence less ineptly. A victory for the anti-war movement, but more remains to be done before the mainstream parties reflect public opinion and abandon Britain’s neocolonial pretensions.

Nuclear war

All three main parties still maintain support for a British nuclear deterrent, despite the criminal absurdity of such a position in the 21st century. The Lib Dems rejected a conference call for disarmament, instead backing the leadership’s policy of a slimmed-down Trident replacement by 322 to 228 votes. The removal of Jim Murphy from Labour’s defence brief was seen by some as a signal that the party’s support for a like-for-like replacement might also be waning, but Miliband has stressed his continuing commitment. The SNP has reaffirmed its position that nuclear submarines would be removed from an independent Scotland as soon as securely possible. The Greens and Plaid Cymru remain similarly opposed.

Free market capitalism

On the central policies of the global economy, the mainstream parties remain locked together in free market fundamentalism. Despite the chaos caused by the global economic crisis of 2008 onwards, none have seen fit to rethink their support for neoliberal capitalism, even if Labour would prefer it to adopt a more ‘responsible’ face. With negotiations on the new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership now threatening to undermine key social and environmental regulations in the name of ‘free trade’, look to the Greens for the most comprehensive rejection of neoliberalism and all its ills.

Tax justice

Everyone now believes in cracking down on tax avoiders – or so you might think if you took party rhetoric at face value. In reality, recent government legislation has made it easier for companies to use tax havens, just as Labour failed to take meaningful action on the issue during its 18 years in power. On the prospect of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, all three main parties are in a bad place. George Osborne has launched a legal challenge to the tax now under construction in Europe, while the Lib Dems and Labour both continue to voice their opposition to it in different ways. Plaid, SNP and Greens are all in favour.

Europe: in or out?

David Cameron has promised us a referendum on EU membership by 2017 if the Tories get back into power – a clear attempt to silence the Eurosceptics in his own party and to offset the UKIP threat. Yet there needs to be an honest debate on the left too as to the threat posed by the EU’s institutions to our democratic rights. You can work to change Britain’s foreign policy all you like, but when key elements of that policy are made in Brussels, there’s nothing you can do.

John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want.

 

Tara Clarke: "Plenty of political support for UK shale gas markets"

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Anti-fracking protesters outside the SNP conference in Perth (PA)

Number of key words mentioned in party conference speeches

MP

Fracking

Shale Gas

Energy

Green*

Environment

David Cameron

0

1

2

1

0

George Osborne

0

1

5

0

0

Owen Paterson

0

0

0

1

17

Ed Miliband

1

0

2

1

6

Ed Balls

0

0

1

3

0

Nick Clegg

0

0

1

3

1

Ed Davey

1

3

21

39

7

Natalie Bennett

2

1

2

1

2

Alex Salmond

0

0

3

1

0

*excluding reference to the Green Party

Table: Energy - a hotter topic than Fracking at party conferences.

 

It turns out, energy is a hot topic. With the proposed development of a “shale gas revolution” in the UK, amidst the resistance north and south of the country, it’s not a surprise that energy has become a contentious issue between political party members. However, as the table shows, speakers only touched on the subject of the UK's shale gas reserves.

Efficiency, investing in renewable infrastructure and fuel source in the UK were three topics brought up during party conference speeches. Let's look at what the parties' said on each of these.

The Green Deal
Lib Dem's Ed Davey announced a £20m pilot for companies to save energy. This Green Deal to cut energy demand while protecting business was criticised by Natalie Bennett as a scheme that will not help “householders tackle energy waste.” George Osborne, took the opportunity to criticise Labour’s freeze on energy prices as “phoney” which will lead to people getting “hammered with high prices later”.

Green Investment Bank
Ed Davey sees green policies as “central for economic recovery”, with £2.5bn invested in The Green Investment Bank. It is celebrated as “a world first” to invest in renewable and green jobs by both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Labour’s Ed Balls is also keen on giving “the Green Investment Bank the borrowing powers it needs to do its job”.

 

Fracking
A topic which attracted thousands of protesters to Balcombe, West Sussex, this summer. Mentioned briefly by all UK party leaders except Nick Clegg who claims to be busy battling to “keep this government green.” Osborne heralded support for shale gas to his northern audience – “And should we accept that this nation that mined deep for coal… turn its backs on new sources of energy like shale gas? No.”

Natalie Bennett took another stab at Ed Davy as an energy secretary who “loves shale gas.” The Lib Dems are determined to prioritise “keeping the lights on... through an energy mix”. Meanwhile, anti-fracking protesters outside SNP conference welcomed an announcement that the planning system would be tightened in Scotland to make the process harder.

It is arguable that what is mentioned in conference party speeches does not entirely represent the parties’ stance on particular issues. Even though Owen Paterson spoke at length about improving the environment, The Independent reported him speaking differently at the Conservative Party’s fringe event. Claiming that “people get very emotional about this subject” and that the “climate has been changing for centuries,” it comes to no surprise that Paterson is often referred to as a climate sceptic.

If there’s anything I can take from each of these conference speeches it is that there is plenty of political support for a UK shale gas market, business and growth comes before climate and people, and energy prices are an argument used on both sides of the shale gas debate.

Tara Clarke is an environmental activist, involved in anti-fracking protests and Science Unstained.

 

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