By Oliver Gibson –
The annual conference season in politics has come and gone. Members from all major British parties were able to gather in their thousands to meet officials, discuss matters of policy and see their leaders deliver major speeches on important issues.
Conferences are also usually huge social events in the political scene, drawing together politically engaged people from all across the country in one venue. Typically, they are across a long weekend, with the drawn-out speeches followed by lively nights of revelling across the town.
With each of the major parties having concluded their conferences, we are now in a position to look back at what was discussed and examine the public response to the issues raised and policies proposed by the party leaders.
Introduction to the Labour Party Conference
The Labour Party Conference took place in Brighton this year, lasting from 25 to 29 September. This Conference marked the first proper opportunity for Sir Keir Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet to speak directly to Labour members, since he was elected to the post of Party Leader in April 2020.
While, of course, speeches from Labour figures are of importance at their Conference, it ought to be noted that Labour Conferences differ from Conservative ones in an important respect. At the Labour Conference, Party members vote on policies, whereas no such decisions are taken by the Conservatives, with grassroots policies being drawn up across other mediums.
This complication led to a row between Sir Keir and grassroots members over Labour’s proposed raise to the national minimum wage – while the Shadow Cabinet backed a £10 wage, members voted for Unite’s motion to set the figure at £15. Andy McDonald, the former Shadow Minister for Employment, actually resigned as a result of his support of the higher proposed minimum wage.
At a number of points during Sir Keir’s speech, the Labour leader was heckled by members of his own audience. One Labour member even shouted when the Labour leader was talking to the Conference about his deceased mother.
However, Sir Keir’s retort to one heckler made headlines, with the Labour leader explaining how ‘at this time on a Wednesday it’s usually the Tories who are heckling me,’ to the delight of the crowd. On a more serious note, the Labour leader also asked hecklers whether ‘shouting slogans or changing lives’, would do more to improve Britain.
Key policies announced at the Labour Conference
iNews broke down the policies addressed at the Labour Conference into eight key areas – the climate, the economy, housing, education, health, crime, foreign affairs and devolution.
On the climate, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves pledged to spend a sizable £28bn every year until 2030 on ‘green infrastructure and jobs.’ While it is not yet clear how many jobs that would support, it nevertheless demonstrates the renewed interest of the Party in appealing to the public on green issues. Further to this, Ed Miliband, who serves as the Shadow Business Secretary, pledged the sum of £3bn to make the steel industry greener.
On the subject of the economy, Reeves also pledged to scrap business rates, which she described as being ‘unfair.’ The hit to the Treasury would be covered by a clampdown on online giants, such as Amazon, many of which notoriously pay little in tax despite their huge profits.
On housing, Labour pledged to put a cap on the amount of property that foreign investors can buy in this country. While Labour says that this policy would help to give priority to local and first-time buyers, due to its application to new property developments, pre-existing housing would be unaffected.
On education, Sir Keir announced that his Government would remove the charitable status of private schools, which would bring them up to the level of other businesses in their tax burden. In light of recent figures that showed how spending per pupil in state schools had decreased massively compared to the figure for private schools, there may be a serious appetite among the public for reform in this area.
Adding the disproportionate relationship between state and privately educated pupils in GCSE and A-Level exam results this year on top of that, Labour might have something of a killer policy on their hands here.
Labour’s messaging on health revolved around familiar talking points from the past with one new addition – Johnathan Ashworth announced that a Labour government would seek to create a ‘national care service,’ modelled in the image of the NHS.
On crime, David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary, announced that a Labour government would compel legal firms to provide a certain amount of legal advice to those deemed to need it for free. Firms that would not comply with this policy would lose access to government contracts under this model. This policy has provoked a mixed response, with the Law Society saying that while lawyers are ‘willing to give their time to benefit those in need,’ this should not be ‘relied upon in place of a properly-funded legal system.’
On foreign affairs, a £35m fund was announced to help Armed Forces veterans and Afghan interpreters who assisted Britain during the War in Afghanistan. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Trade Secretary, also stated that extra controls would be put in place in order to ensure that Britain would not be offering military training support to countries accused of human rights abuses.
Finally, on devolution, it was announced that the Party would seek to ‘boost devolution’ to give local councils more control over investment from Westminster.
Introduction to the Conservative Conference
The Central Convention Complex in Manchester played host to the Conservative Conference this year, with the Party’s members meeting between the 3rd and the 6th of this month.
The Prime Minister, along with his newly reshuffled Cabinet, enjoyed a slightly warmer welcome at the Conservative Conference than Sir Keir Starmer had at his, with members eager to see ‘King Boris,’ as one unnamed Cabinet Minister put it to the Guardian. However, a number of difficult issues remained unresolved by the time the Party gathered.
For example, talk of supermarket shortages has continued for weeks on Twitter, with the topic being covered by many media outlets. Further to this, fuel shortages at petrol pumps began to appear in recent weeks – though some argue that these shortages were in fact fuelled by the media, which caused many to start ‘panic buying’ the commodity.
As was reported in the Independent in early September, the Government isolated ‘Northern Tories’ in their decision to raise levels of personal taxation. While Boris Johnson assured the 1922 Committee, the group representing the views of Conservative backbenchers, that his Government believes in low taxation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank calculated that those tax rises ‘will take the UK’s tax burden to its highest ever sustained level.’
Of course, it also emerged recently that the Government was looking into lowering the repayment threshold for student loans from £27,000 to £23,000 – an act which would hit lower earners and leave the rich unscathed.
And yet, with all those points considered, there were no embarrassing headline-grabbing displays of resistance from the Party membership, the likes of which were seen in the Labour Conference. Needless to say, the situation faced by the Government is of a different nature to the kind of challenge faced by Labour at the moment.
The Conservatives are in government, they are in a favourable position in the polls, and the relationship between Party factions appears to be balanced – perhaps in part due to the end of Coronavirus restrictions in July, which put an end to the challenge that the COVID Recovery Group posed.
On the other hand, Labour has been out of power since 2010 and has not won a general election since 2005. Their previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who maintains a high level of popularity among the Labour membership, was also expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party late last year.
Important policies covered (or not covered) at the Conservative Conference
Last year’s Conservative Conference, which took place entirely online, saw much talk about the environment and the ‘green economy’ as well as housing and immigration. This year’s Conference, on the other hand, was a much larger event, what with it taking place in person. As a result, many more topics were touched upon, and there was a greater level of connection between Ministers and their audiences at keynote speeches.
According to the Guardian, Ministers were told by No. 10 that there was ‘no pressure to make any announcements’ on matters of policy at this year’s Conference, with most of the heavy lifting in that regard being carried out by the Prime Minister himself.
In his main speech to the Conference, Boris Johnson described the hit to public finances brought on by the pandemic as a ‘meteorite’ and hinted that lockdowns and coronavirus restrictions would always have incurred costs down the line. In total, the UK’s GDP declined by a whopping ‘9.8%’ as a result of the pandemic-induced recession, according to the House of Commons library. That decline was the ‘steepest drop since consistent records began in 1948.’
In response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government decided to raise levels of personal taxation. This tax hike ran counter to the March 2021 Budget, which increased levels of corporation tax on the most profitable businesses while freezing the tax-free personal allowance at £12,750 until 2026.
As one might expect, the tax hike was not covered heavily in any of the speeches at the Conference. Instead, a more subtle approach was pursued, as demonstrated in the hints made by Boris Johnson, which were explained previously.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, also expressed the gravity of the situation regarding the economy in a speech to the Conference. However, as Sky News’ Kate McCann explained last week, while Sunak did talk about ‘jobs, wages and skills’ in his speech to Conference, the truth of the matter is that the Conservatives are ‘riding high in the polls’ and can afford to leave certain economic policy announcements until the Autumn Budget later this year.
There was a significant announcement from the Home Secretary at the Conference. Asserting the abhorrence of the fact that a police officer could ‘abuse his position of power, authority and trust to commit such a horrific crime,’ Priti Patel announced an inquiry into the ‘systemic failures’ that allowed Wayne Couzens to remain part of the Metropolitan Police despite his earlier wrongdoing.
Many questions regarding Couzens remain unanswered – and if public confidence in the Metropolitan Police is to be restored, that organisation will need to see some serious reform. It might be possible that a simple inquiry by itself will not satisfy the desire for change among the public in the Met.