A tale of two party conferences

Authors: Jack Maycock
  • Posted on: October 18, 2023

Party conference season is over, and with tragic global events taking over the news cycle, it already feels like a lifetime ago. Our Strategy Lead, Jack Maycock  attended the Labour Party Conference and kept a close eye on the Conservative Party Conference. Here’s what he noticed:

Appealing to the base or the country? 

Arguably, the most striking difference between the two conferences were the issues being discussed. This might seem odd given an election is likely taking place next year, but in many ways it reflects where both parties currently are.

At the Conservative Party conference, the HS2 saga dominated, both on-the-ground and in the news cycle. Many of the set-piece speeches leaned into wedge issues that are meaningful to the Party’s base: immigration, trans issues, the ‘work-shy’, and fighting ‘wokeness’. Now it could be that their broader strategy for the next election is to focus on these social wedge issues, but given the speeches from Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch, and even Rishi Sunak, felt like auditions for a future leadership contest, it makes more sense that these messages are meant for the party membership – a group Rishi Sunak has never truly won over.

This would also explain some of the climate announcements Sunak made the week prior to conference, including ‘scrapping’ things like compulsory carpooling that was only ever a Department for Transport recommendation to councils, rather than a government policy.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party Conference felt much more like a pitch to the country. After a long, long, long time waiting for some policy detail, Labour at least expanded upon their vision in key policy areas where they believe they have the upper hand: housing, health, and climate.

The latter is perhaps the most interesting as where Labour has avoided clear dividing lines with the government on immigration, law and order, and some aspects of foreign policy, it is clear the Labour Party are confident in going to battle over the climate and Net Zero. From the numerous fringe events on the topic, it is clear that Labour want to lean into the economic opportunities rather than the economic costs more espoused by the government and Conservative backbenchers.

This should also provide hope for those in the climate sector. Hope that there is an audience for innovative climate policies that lean into the economic opportunities of renewable energy or home insulation. If Labour does form the next government, they will face the same pressures to delay NetZero as any other government around the world, but the key is that Labour will face more pressure to accelerate the green transition — pressure from the public, party members, , MPs, elements of industry and influential parts of civil society. If Labour comes to power, identifying and integrating these levers of influence will certainly be a more realistic prospect than in previous years.

More policy, please

On the 2nd day of the Conservative Party Conference, Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a 15-minute speech to a half-full conference hall. The speech was criticised by many for being light in policy and ambition, with the main two announcements being a halt on civil service expansion and a 58p p/h rise in the National Living Wage (minimum wage for over-23’s) — hardly the transformative policies that are going to overcome a hefty Labour lead in the polls, and perhaps another reason for the leadership auditions in front members that are itching for eye-catching policies. 

But it’s not just the Conservatives: as much as Labour has expanded upon their vision, much of the talk was still based on broad references to reform. When it comes to the NHS, schools, planning, and more, the type and scale of reform is unclear, as is the plan for investment or borrowing that will fund these reforms. None of this is to say that impactful reform in these areas can’t be achieved, but Labour is yet to answer exactly how.

Without a clear idea of policy direction, it can be difficult for campaigners to know where to prioritise their advocacy. By the same token, with the conferences providing a greater articulation of both parties’ vision and areas of prioritisation, this perception could be flipped; with self-imposed limitations on both parties spending, it is fair to say that plenty is up for grabs when it comes to election manifestos. With Labour for example, we know from Labour’s National Policy Forum policy platform what could be included, but this will inevitably be costed and cut down. There is a clear focus for advocacy — to ensure that the most impactful policies are included as manifesto commitments. 

Labour more confident than ever, and with good reason

The tone of the entire Labour Conference was one of “When we’re in government, we will…” and while the party that is in opposition almost has to frame speeches in this way, there’s a noticeable difference when they truly believe it. From conference speeches to fringe events, Labour believe they have the ideas to beat the Conservatives after 14 years.

While there is a long way to go and plenty of time for both sides to excel or falter, you can see why Labour are in such high spirits:

Nothing Rishi Sunak does is seemingly making much debt into Labour or Tory numbers. The post conference polls don’t make for much better reading as Labour have seen a bump pushing them above 45% and the Conservatives flit above and below 25%. For context, these numbers would likely give Labour a majority of 100+ at the next election, so you can see why they’ve got a spring in their step.

For now though, with the Labour lead entrenched and an election deadline of January 2025, the questions are now back on the Government:

  • When will the General Election be called?
  • Will Rishi Sunak lead the Conservatives into the election? 
  • Can any prospective Tory leader sufficiently cut the Labour lead in (max) 15 months?