A lot at stake during this year’s Party Conference season

This year’s party conferences may well be the final ones before the next general election, meaning all political parties will use them to begin to articulate their pitch to the public. Ahead of the conferences, Director and Head of Public Affairs Adam Thomas writes on what to expect:

What to expect at this year’s party conferences

Party conferences are key part of the political calendar, held in the autumn following the summer recess. They act as national platform, giving the parties the chance to project policies and personalities to a national audience.

The event themselves bring together politicians, party members and a wide range of organisations and stakeholders seeking to influence and shape the parties’ thinking.  While the extent of formal policymaking procedures differs between parties, each conference is an important set-piece event for party members and receives vast and sustained media attention. The Leaders’ speeches, traditionally used to close the conferences, are important moments to speak directly to the nation. The 2023 annual party conferences take on particular importance as the parties seek to position themselves ahead of a general election.

Liberal Democrat Party Conference

The Liberal Democrats’ conference is currently ongoing, which started on 23rd September and finishes on 26th September. The Lib Dems hold two federal (i.e. UK-wide) party conferences a year, a weekend in the spring and a week in the autumn. The Autumn Conference is their most important decision making body. All party members can take part in conference debates and vote on policy through a one-member one-vote system. The conferences are a mix of set-piece speeches, policy debates, fringe meetings and training events and more organised by the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC).

Expect an upbeat atmosphere at conference as party members reflect on a by election victory in Somerton and Frome, which followed a victory in Tiverton and Honiton last year. These victories will convince many that after the next election they could return to be the third-largest party in the Commons. If Labour fails to secure a majority, this may be enough to give the party increased influence either as part of a potential coalition or, more likely, through a supply and confidence agreement with a minority Labour administration.

Conservative Party Conference

The Conservative Party Annual Conference will be held in Manchester from Sunday 1 to Wednesday 4 October. The Conference sees party members, the press, and lobbying organisations to hear speeches from Ministers, attend fringe events, and to network. Unlike other parties’ conferences, it is less constitutionally significant, and is used more as a rallying event for party members. Unlike Labour’s conference, it is given no direct role in deciding the party’s policies or governance. Nonetheless, it is a significant political event in that Secretaries of State speeches and ‘in conversation’ events allow the them to set out the Party’s political and Governmental agenda.

The Prime Minister will hope to turn around his Party’s fortunes by demonstrating progress on his ‘five pledges,’ in addition to creating dividing lines with Labour on ‘wedge’ issues such as net zero and immigration. The Conference comes one month prior to the Government’s new legislative agenda to be announced in the King’s Speech on 7 November and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 22 November, meaning hints may be given as to whether tax cuts, or other headline policies, will form part of the Conservatives’ platform at the next election.

The Prime Minister’s primary objective is to demonstrate that the next general election is not a forgone conclusion for his Party – something Professor Sir John Curtice spoke about when he visited Luther earlier in the year. By invigorating activists with popular policies, while creating clear dividing lines with Labour, Rishi Sunak will hope to bring the Party with him in believing all hope is not lost.

Labour Party Conference

The Labour Party Annual Conference will be held in Liverpool from Sunday 8 to Wednesday 11 October. The Conference is a voting conference – bringing together the whole Labour movement – with constituency delegates, trade unions, and socialist societies voting on policies put forward by the National Policy Forum (NPF).

The policies that will be voted on are being finalised following a meeting of the NPF in July 2023. A small number of motions will also be put forward by Constituency Labour Parties. However, policies agreed by delegates are not binding on the Leadership and therefore will not necessarily form part of Labour’s election manifesto.

Shadow Ministers will be eager to portray themselves as a Government-in-waiting, so while a significant portion of the Conference will be critical of the Government, there is a need to pull together and explain Labour’s alternative plans and proposals.

The conference will be meeting shortly after the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by election, due to be held on 5th October, when Labour and the SNP will go head-to-head for a seat in the key Central Belt area, part of Scotland crucial to Labour if it is to regain power in Westminster.  This by-election is a real test of whether Labour has managed to rehabilitate its brand in Scotland and proof of whether it can rely on significant seat gains against the SNP north of the border.

The Leader’s speech will prove a crucial test as to whether Sir Keir Starmer can bring together each of Labour’s 5 national missions into a coherent election message, while energising party members behind his leadership.

Luther at party conferences

This year’s party conferences are high stakes and the Luther team is looking forward to supporting our clients at both Conservative and Labour Conferences. If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about how Luther can help your organisation’s political engagement, do get in touch at PublicAffairs@luther.co.uk