On 2nd December, MPW Politics students attended an annual national conference at Westminster Central Hall, addressed by leading national politicians.
John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, was first to take the platform. He explained how he had to remain detached from party politics and said he had managed both to make the
Commons move at a brisker pace and to grant far more ‘Urgent Questions’ from backbenchers. During the Q-and-A session he said he would like to see more female MPs and spoke of his efforts nationwide to engage more people in politics, especially the young.
Unfortunately, UKIP leader Nigel Farage could not attend the conference, so party Vice-Chairman Neil Hamilton took his place. He said that, unlike UKIP, the three ‘old’ parties all came from the same background and were essentially united on issues such as immigration, green policies and the EU. As a result, they were suffering a decline in membership, whereas UKIP was growing. He described the Tory party as a “corpse” and the Prime Minister as “toxic”. Challenged about UKIP’s apparently intolerant policies on immigration, he replied that it was “not an issue of race, but of space”.
The third speaker was libertarian Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, who said that the government was spending an extraordinary amount on healthcare but that elderly people in hospital are dying of thirst. He described prime-ministerial power since the 1980s as “presidential” and as “sofa government”, adding “We need to overturn the sofa”. Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes spoke next. He disagreed with UKIP’s EU policy, arguing that we are “better together”. He wanted a more just Britain, a stronger economy, and more liberty. He urged reduction of the nuclear weapons budget but praised the fact that a full 0.7% of UK revenue goes to aid for developing countries.
Next, Andrew Mitchell – former Conservative whip, long at the centre of the ‘Plebgate’ controversy – made a surprise appearance. He declared the Conservatives could win an overall majority in the next election and suggested that the coalition’s loss of the Commons vote on Syrian intervention was an almost unprecedented sign of a more assertive Parliament.
After lunch, we were addressed by veteran Labour politician Tony Benn, who told us how closely war and politics were connected: we should be “suspicious of all people making us believe we have an enemy”. He said he was a critic of his party, but didn’t feel it was betraying the working class: “Labour is not a socialist party, but it has socialists in it.”
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries was the day’s only female speaker. She said that, even though she is “pro-choice”, 24 weeks was too late to abort a child and she wants to change this. She also defended her controversial comment that Cameron and Osborne were “two
posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. She favoured more people from less well-off backgrounds aspiring to better-paid jobs, more women in politics, and “politics for the people”.
Conservative minister Alan Duncan felt that UK international development aid was something everyone should be proud of. He argued for increasing MPs’ salaries and for the legalization of all drugs (but stressed he didn’t currently advocate this as a government minister). He rhetorically asked, “What is politics all about?”, replying that currently it is all about the likeability of politicians and the false promises they make to gain popularity. In essence, the electorate is being cheated. He said politics is what you make and what you take, and that he does not want the economy to slow down because of over-taxation.
Labour’s Tristram Hunt said he is rethinking the nature of the political economy and feels we should too. The financial crisis was due not to overspending on schools and hospitals but to over dependence on the financial services sector. His solution: to reinforce the economy and have systems for managing markets, which will raise living standards. He “passionately believes in educational excellence”, but expressed his unhappiness with the current educational system. He feels more careers advice is needed for young people, whom he wants “to learn to love learning”. He also said that he wants more creativity in the economic system.
Former Labour Cabinet minister David Blunkett spoke last. He likened the Coalition to a bad marriage in which a couple feels forced to stay together because of the children, but whom even the children don’t want to stay married. He talked about the wealth gap, pointing out that in some parts of the country people are spending “like there is no tomorrow”, whereas in his Sheffield constituency many cannot afford the rising costs of heating and food. He compared the Tories to a bull terrier that wants to bite someone’s face off, and said that the Liberal Democrats are upset about the compromises they have had to make, abandoning positions they once shared with Labour (a potential problem for a future Labour government). All those attending gained a deeper insight into the policies of the different parties and had an enjoyable day.