UK Politics: It’s Party (Conference) Time!

by the UK Public Affairs team

Conference season is upon us and while this year one of the staples of the British political calendar is once again disrupted by the pandemic, it remains a good time to check in with the different parties and see how they are getting on. As we emerge from 18 months of lockdowns, this year’s party conferences will likely be the starting point for a return to post-COVID-19 politics as usual.

by Matt Gillow, Senior Account Executive

For a governing party with such a big majority in the House of Commons, the Conservative Party continues to be fraught with factional tensions – and these are usually brought to the fore during Conference season, as backbench MPs and Ministers alike compete for grassroots attention.

Though perhaps disagreements within the Party have settled following decades of differing opinions over the European Union, the debate over vaccine passports, the cost of Net Zero, and the age-old interventionist versus free-market Conservative battle continues to cause friction within the Parliamentary Conservative Party.

Indeed, a handful of backbench MPs continue to refuse to attend this year’s Conference in Manchester in protest over the Party’s insistence that only double vaccinated registrants will be allowed to attend.

Though voices of dissent within the Conservative Party are muted, Boris Johnson’s honeymoon period is now over. With a looming reshuffle rumoured to be on the horizon, keep one eye on the Conference fringes, where ambitious backbenchers will look to burnish their credentials for promotion.

COVID-19 will naturally loom large, but Conference season will likely signal something of a return to normal for the Conservative Party, with factional disputes emerging once more and reshuffle hopefuls playing politics.

by Dan Julian, Account Manager

This year’s gathering will be the second with Keir Starmer as leader, but crucially the first time he will be addressing the Party faithful in person. After a moderately successful speech last year, many in the Party now see this month’s conference as the opportunity for Starmer to reset his leadership and present a new vision to the country. As the UK emerges from the pandemic, Starmer and his Party will need to up their game if they are to steal a march from the Government. So far Labour has trailed in every poll since the end of January.

While that may have been understandable at the height of the vaccine roll-out, excuses are running out for Starmer, and his newly installed team need this Conference to go well in order to calm the nerves of jittery MPs. Crucial will be the performance of the new Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, who has the unenviable task of setting out Labour’s stall on the economy – traditionally the party’s Achilles heel with voters.

Lib Dems
by Lizzy Tomlin, Account Director

Did you know the Scottish Lib Dems elected a new leader on 20 August 2021? Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP was elected after a month-long election contest where he was the only person to have put himself forward to succeed Willie Rennie. It got some pick-up in the news, mainly regional, but overall, it barely made a splash.

It encapsulates the problem currently facing the Lib Dems at the moment. Coverage of the Party is low because not many people are listening to what they have to say.

Nevertheless, no matter how low the Party’s ratings are or how little coverage the Party receives, their conferences are always buoyed by enthusiastic Party members who just simply LOVE the Lib Dems. It’s a lovely yellow bubble of like-minded socks-and-sandal wearing members who understand the demise of the Party but still adore it.

It’s therefore a shame that Lib Dem Conference this year will be held entirely virtually. There will be no Glee Club (a cringey singalong/karaoke event), no opportunity for Ed Davey to woo his members over a warm white wine, and no yellow bubble to keep spirits alive and leaflets through letterboxes. And it’s needed now more than ever – the Lib Dems’ 2020 annual report recently showed membership has fallen in a year by 22.5%

Nevertheless, the Party is keen to keep up the momentum it gained following the Chesham & Amersham by-election, where Lib Dem member activity swelled and was, ultimately, successful. Let’s hope a virtual conference enables the Party to keep spirits high and momentum to conquer the ‘Blue Wall’ at the next election.

by Blair Campbell, Account Manager

While the campaign for a second independence referendum has gone quiet in recent months, the SNP’s National Conference is set to bring the issue back to the forefront of the Party’s political agenda. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will likely attempt to assuage concerns from factions within her Party that plans for a second referendum have been shelved. Independence has been labelled as one of three key policy themes for the conference, with proposals around plans for another referendum including the timing of a draft referendum Bill likely to cause significant debate.

Alongside the focus on independence, climate change will also feature prominently at the conference motivated by Glasgow hosting the COP26 climate summit in November. The SNP’s ambition to brandish its green credentials have been boosted by the partnership agreement struck with the Scottish Greens and Sturgeon will seek to push forward with the Party’s green agenda at conference.

Beyond the thematic focus of the conference, the optics of presenting a united Party after recent controversies will also be high in the priorities of the SNP’s top brass. Following several months of negative news reports around the Party’s handling of donations that led to internal recriminations and the resignation of its National Treasurer Douglas Chapman, the conference will present an opportunity to refocus members around the cause of independence and position the SNP as the vehicle to achieving it.

This article first appeared in Cicero/amo’s September 2021 newsletter. Please click here to access all articles.

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Lizzy Tomlin

Account Director