Insights from Party Conference: A tale of two conferences

This conference season has already seen two very different and interesting events and certainly brought to the fore the dividing lines now developing in British policies as the parties start to move into general election mode.

While I don’t think we learnt much that was new from the main hall speeches at either the Labour or Conservative Party Conferences, the fringes told the real story of where the parties are at the moment, highlighting just how many opportunities there are to engage and be part of the policy development process.

Resurgence in Liverpool

The atmosphere at Labour was one of real and palpable positivity that the party has moved beyond questions about whether it is fit to govern, to highlighting how it is ready to govern.

Two big things particularly struck me over the few days in Liverpool. The first was how comfortable Shadow Ministers were about talking about the value of business and the economy. There was positive feedback from the discussions at the Business Day events – despite Lisa Nandy’s outburst about BT at the New Statesman event. Shadow Ministers were talking about the role and importance of competitiveness and growth and encouraging private sector investment.

I think the issue that really seemed to excite a lot of Shadow Ministers though was the feeling that the Government had ceded ground on the levelling up agenda. Here Labour sees a big opportunity to gain back the ground lost in the Red Wall. There was some interesting discussion about how Labour will seek to leverage the Climate Investment Fund and the transference of assets to the local level to help generate income and, importantly, drive growth over the long term.

The other really heartening aspect of conference was that all the Shadow Ministers I spoke to wanted to engage and discuss their ideas and talk to people about how they can be developed further. It felt like there was a renewed confidence in Labour’s thinking about the key economic issues, not seen in a number of years.

Keir Starmer’s speech was solid, confirming the new direction of travel for Labour, without much in the way of major policy announcements above and beyond the creation of Great British Energy. The most important part of the speech for me was the pragmatism he underscored – that even in government Labour would not be able to implement its entire wish list; a tough message perhaps for the membership but a crucial recognition that the Party has to govern for the whole country.

There’s clearly still work to be done and the challenge for Labour is how to cement this position. Polling research shared during the conference of voters in the Red Wall, highlighted that while many people are angry with the Government, they haven’t quite yet made the commitment to switch back to Labour, and much of that reticence seems focused on seeing Starmer as a Prime Minister in waiting.

At the moment, the extraordinary poll leads are flattering the Party given the current febrile state of the markets following the announcement of the Government’s Growth Plan. But there is no doubt that the Conference saw a Labour Party transformed, with a renewed confidence that government is a real prospect.

 Introspection in Birmingham

So off to Birmingham with some trepidation about how the Conservative Party would deal with the fall out from the previous week as the pound and poll ratings plummeted.

Again, the fringe proved the most instructive about how the Party was feeling, with former Cabinet Ministers using Sunday afternoon events to raise concerns with the new Government’s expansive approach to tax and borrowing, which clearly had an impact on the latter days of the conference as the Prime Minister and Chancellor were forced into U-turns.

The continuing market turmoil together with backbench dissatisfaction derailed key elements of the Conference programme, including the all-important Business Day on Monday – a contrast perhaps to the event at Labour – and there were some clear problems with the Party’s communications strategy, which Penny Mordaunt referred to in rather fruitier language.

This is an administration that’s in a hurry, with Ministers pressured to deliver from the get-go, and while the headline message was consistently about ‘going for growth’, the policies and ideas seem to require further consideration. A great opportunity therefore to engage, something underlined by Minister Paul Scully at one of Luther’s own conference events.

There were some clear pointers about where the Government wants engagement and new ideas.  Highlighting the Brexit dividend is and has been a clear priority, as well as areas where the Government can show quick deregulation wins. ‘Easier said than done’ has been the experience in the past, but with all bets now on economic growth and ‘supply side reform’ the Government is leaving itself little room for manoeuvre.

There are clearly big questions about whether it has the necessary time to deliver on some of its biggest totemic policies such as Investment Zones and whether the Government can command enough consensus across the parliamentary party to make them a reality in time for a general election.

The focus will surely need to be on the current legislation already in the pipeline and how the Government can use major Bills like the Financial Services and Markets Bill, the Economic Crime Bill and the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill, to deliver change quickly.

The Prime Minister and Chancellor’s speeches gave us few new details, but it looks, as I write this, as if they have at least managed to stabilise the situation until Parliament returns next week.

We now await the Chancellor’s next financial update sometime in November and it was speculated that we could see more announcements on the Government’s thinking on regulatory reform as early as next week.

The challenge will be one of credibility, will the Government be forced to U-turn again on other policies if enough pressure is applied? If the polls continue in the direction they have, Conservative MPs will certainly be looking over their shoulders and I suspect actively seeking to prevent the Government’s agenda going forward.

What’s clear is that the dividing lines between the political parties have never been greater – a window ahead of the general election is now opening and battle lines are being drawn. Engagement will need careful thought and nimble approach to ensure organisations maintain relationships with a Conservative Government, while actively preparing for a possible Labour one.

Luther Pendragon is one of the UK’s most highly-regarded independent communications consultancies, with a 30 year track record of helping organisations understand and manage political risk and tell compelling stories to the people that matter. Contact us to find out how we can help your organisation make an impact.