By Robert Price
Senior Account Executive
The UK Summer is fading into the distance, which means it’s Party Conference season. But what are the Party Conferences, what happens at them, and how (and why) is Clarity – like all good politicos – getting involved?
UK Party Conferences 101
The major UK political parties each hold an annual Conference in the autumn, designed to be their party’s main get-together. Thousands of politicians, party activists, lobbyists, businesses, and the media turn up to network, debate, set policies, and generate headlines, with quite a lot of politicking and drinking taking place too!
Held over several days, Conferences centre around the main conference hall where senior party figures make speeches, and policy debates and votes are held. Each Conference ends with a speech from the leader aiming to get positive media attention and boost party morale for the year to come.
However, with the main agenda increasingly stage-managed, some of the most interesting and less events and debates are found on the “fringe”, where dozens of smaller rooms are booked out for speeches, panel discussions, debates, and interviews, along with many social events like lunches, dinners, exhibitions, and drinks receptions. Fringe events are notorious for seeing people out of favour with party leadership attending dozens of events to schmooze. These events sometimes also see tired and frazzled MPs make unguarded comments to journalists that are splashed over the front pages in the morning.
Even just wandering the corridors, attendees bump into MPs, ministers, journalists, and old friends and colleagues, making a Party Conference the perfect place to grab someone for a quick chat about an issue that you care about. This year’s Conferences are likely to be the last before the next UK general election, making them particularly important in setting the tone and policy direction for the parties as their long campaigns begin.
The Conservative Conference
Last year’s Tory (Conservative) Conference was a challenging one. It took place during Liz Truss’ brief leadership and was marred by infighting, policy U-turns, and a collapsing prime ministership. Rishi Sunak, the current Conservative leader and Prime Minister, might well be thinking: whatever happens it will not be as bad as last year. This won’t be of much comfort for a party against the political wall that’s well behind in the polls with an election creeping closer.
Although Sunak has stabilised the party’s leadership, the mood music of the last year has been one of high (albeit falling) inflation, problems in the health service, and limited scope to make grand promises. Tory MPs are increasingly panicking that they will have little to promise the electorate next year. The last few weeks have seen a moderate rolling back of some climate targets, which went down moderately well with the public, and increasing speculation about the HS2 rail project’s status north of Birmingham as the Party heads to Manchester.
Many in the Conservative Party are worried that Sunak lacks the visionary abilities that a PM needs. Some believe cancelling infrastructure and watering down environmental targets in the name of long-term decision-making will not be enough to inspire people to vote Conservative. They will be keen to see some major announcements at the Conference to rectify this, but will Sunak and Hunt – two men much keener to look after the pennies than other recent Tory leaders – be willing to do this, and counter the “inaction man” epithet that Labour have started using about the PM?
Finally, if the next election is already lost, how many senior figures will use fringe events to cause trouble, break rank, and start to lay the ground for their future leadership campaigns? All eyes will be on Kemi Badenoch (Secretary of State for Business and Trade), Suella Braverman (Secretary of State for the Home Department), and Penny Mordaunt (Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons). Close attention will also be paid to the battle for ‘the soul of the party’ between the right wing up-and-comers and bruised one-nation moderates who are keen to push back on the Government’s climate policy shift and focus on culture war issues.
The Labour Conference
Labour’s confidence and strong polling position will be front and centre this year in Liverpool. Starmer has long warned his party against complacency, but almost everyone is now seeing their position shifting from being a potential alternative government to being undoubtedly the next government. Labour celebrated too soon in 1992 (going on to lose the election), so will leadership be able to prevent the tone of this Conference from becoming a premature celebration?
A consistent criticism of the party has been that it’s lacking detailed policy proposals and has been getting by on the Conservative Government’s unpopularity. This Conference presents a perfect opportunity to lay out a large number of policies aimed to capture the imagination of the public and seize control of the year to come. Following on from its internal policy-making process and consultation earlier this year, the National Policy Forum, all eyes will be on any new announcements as Labour looks to build its own five national missions.
With some clear water starting to emerge separating Labour from the Conservatives on areas like the environment, will Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves – who have long been cautious about details, promises, and spending commitments – be bold or careful? And will some in the party allow their frustrations to boil over? Labour still allows its members a significant say over policy formation (although this has been watered down over the years), so we can expect some passionate speeches in the main hall from members on issues like climate spending, childcare reform, nationalisation, rent controls, and public sector pay and conditions. These issues have long been close to the hearts of party members, but Starmer has been resisting change.
Finally, there were a number of big changes at Labour’s recent reshuffle – most notably Peter Kyle becoming the new Shadow Tech Secretary, and Angela Reyner the new Shadow Housing Secretary. With potential battles in these areas, this will be a first opportunity to see how they perform under pressure and set out their platforms.
Clarity at the Conferences
Members of the Clarity Public Affairs team will be attending both the Labour and Conservative Conferences to bring our clients’ ideas and messages directly to the decision-makers, and to gather intelligence to inform our work in the year to come. In particular, the HealthTech Alliance group (administered by Clarity) will be hosting a dinner for industry representatives and political stakeholders at the Labour Conference, which will be a great opportunity to share ideas and get involved.
If you need further guidance on the Party Conferences, or are interested in hearing how Clarity can support your government relations, contact the team today.
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