To those who think that there is something backward facing about both our major parties, they had a riposte at their conferences. Theresa May robo-gyrated on to the Tory platform to Dancing Queen, a hit for Abba in 1976. The musical finale of the Labour conference was Children of the Revolution, released by T. Rex in 1972. Don’t get me wrong. Both are fine tunes. The 1970s, a benighted decade in many other ways, did produce a lot of fantastic music. Yet it tells us something about the mindset of the two parties, and the vintage of their leaders, that the search for an appropriate conference soundtrack ended up with songs that were hits more than four decades ago.
Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May were preoccupied with the past in other ways. Both their conference speeches included calls for their respective parties to put aside the bitter divisions of recent months and to unite behind them. Both had a success, albeit one that will likely prove ephemeral. If the leader’s closing speech was all you caught of each conference, you could have been deceived into thinking that both the blue tribe and the red clan are now enthusiastically gathered behind their chiefs. Both helped themselves by delivering more accomplished speeches than usual. Neither is ever going to trouble the compilers of collections of historic oratory, but both cleared the low expectations set for them.
Mrs May’s performance before the Tories was the best of the three addresses she has delivered to her party’s annual gathering. Admittedly, this is not saying all that much. It would have been hard to have done worse than the debacle of last year. That allowed for, the speech, and its reception, came in at the high end of her allies’ expectations. It was a clever ruse to invite the conference to join her in condemning the abuse of Diane Abbott, not a figure who generates warmth among Tories and thus designed to make it seem the more fair minded of the two parties. The surprise was spoilt for me because I had heard Sajid Javid, the home secretary, use precisely the same device in his speech the day before.
As for Mr Corbyn, he is never going to convince anyone that he is the finest orator to bestride a Labour platform since Nye Bevan. He still has a disconcerting tendency to lurch from the whispery to the ranty, sometimes in one sentence. Yet he has certainly got better with training and practice and is always a lot happier being able to speak for an hour without interruption by anyone asking awkward questions. His was the speech of a leader sounding more comfortable and confident in the job. Both looked OK on the TV news clips, which is all that many voters ever see of a party conference. The media herd, which is more influenced by atmospherics and optics than it sometimes knows, judged that both had enjoyed good conferences. You had to look below the surfaces to extract the real lessons of the conference season. One is that both parties are still in a horrible mess over Brexit. In the course of Labour’s week in Liverpool, senior party figures managed to enunciate at least four different and often plain contradictory positions on the most important question facing Britain in the immediate future. Not to have a further referendum. To perhaps have a referendum, but only if they can’t engineer a general election. To have a referendum with Remain on the ballot paper. To have a referendum, but with Remain not on the ballot paper.
After devoting myself to following the twists and turns of Labour policy, and with the benefit of speaking to Labour figures of various persuasions, I still cannot tell you where Labour will land when the crunch comes in parliament. The respectable reason for this fog of equivocation is that they can’t make a decision until they know what deal, if any, Mrs May manages to secure. The unrespectable reason is that Labour is still using ambiguity about Brexit to try to contain the rifts between its pro-EU members, its Eurosceptic leadership and a Labour vote that is split on the question. Not that this is any consolation for the Tories. Their Brexit convulsions are much more visceral and generate unabated destructive hatred between the Tories occupying opposed sides of the Brexit barricades. Mrs May demonstrated just how popular her Chequers plan is with her party by getting through her entire conference speech without once referring to it.
There are Labour people who do not think that this is a sensible strategy, either as a programme for government or as a means of winning power, but they were not heard from. Many non-Corbynite Labour MPs did not show their faces in Liverpool. Those who did turn up kept their heads down. To argue with the direction set on Merseyside would have been to spit in the wind. It would also have been to put themselves at more risk of being deselected as Labour MPs, a process that the conference decided to make much easier in the future.
Having pulled their party decisively to the left, the Labour leadership think they can do the same to Britain. It is self-evidently a rhetorical device to claim that Labour now represents the “mainstream”. But it also reflects a genuine belief that the British people are ready to embrace the sort of society that Mr McDonnell has been advocating for many decades. Opinion polling tells the Labour leadership that many of their ideas appear to be popular. Taking the railways and utilities back into public ownership goes down well with voters, fewer and fewer of whom can remember the imperfections of nationalised industries. Hiking taxes on higher earners and businesses also attracts plenty of support, as usually happens after a prolonged period of Conservative government.
The conundrum for Labour is that its individual policies poll much more impressively than either the party or its leader. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer has the two parties coming out of the conference season neck and neck, not where you’d want to be as Labour to be really confident that power is in your grasp. One potential explanation, for which there is some evidence in the polls, is that many voters may like the sound of Labour ideas, but do not trust the party and/or Mr Corbyn to be sufficiently competent to implement them. Another possible explanation is that voters might like the look of this or that dish on the Labour menu, but they choke when asked to swallow the whole eight-course meal.
The energy of the Labour conference provided Tories with another thing to quarrel about. Some want to mirror Labour’s march to the left by striding further in the opposite direction. These Tories were vocal in Birmingham arguing for lower taxes, less regulation and a smaller state. Even if they are not quite aware of it, the Tory right share one piece of analysis with the Corbynistas – they think that you win in polarised political times by making the choices starker.
Moderate Tories, like their residual Labour counterparts, think this is a terrible mistake. They were pleased that Mrs May’s conference speech, which tried to reanimate some of the themes with which she began her premiership, made an effort to pitch to the centre, as she does again in the piece by her we publish today.
This much we know from the conferences. Labour has made its choice about how it will fight the next election. The Conservatives are still arguing about it.
• Andrew Rawnsley is an Observer columnist