Party Conference Season Review: Much work still to do for both main parties

by Simon Fitzpatrick, Head of UK Public Affairs

Another conference season has been and gone. While the SNP and Lib Dems spent another year hosting their proceedings entirely online, Labour and the Conservatives returned to physical gatherings in Brighton and Manchester respectively.

These were important conferences for both of the main parties, neither of whom have had entirely happy times of late. Labour has continued to trail in the polls, even as problems mount up for the Government, with Keir Starmer under pressure from many on his own side to begin more forcefully opposing Boris Johnson. Johnson himself has been placed under pressure by events, many of which his critics argue are of his own making, including rising energy costs and supply chain issues sparking a fuel shortage.

So who will be happier with their conference, and where do they leave us as we head into a crucial Autumn in UK politics? Let’s take a head-to-head look at how each of the big two fared on a range of key indicators at conference.

Leader’s speeches

Starmer and Johnson’s speeches summed up the differences between the two men perfectly. While the Labour leader delivered a serious address in which he sought to contrast his own values and experience with the “trivial” Johnson, the Tory leader was happy to bask in the tag of “showman”. The Prime Minister delivered a joke-heavy speech which once again showed off his spirit of relentless optimism.

Even as he sought to occupy territory more traditionally associated with the Labour Party, invoking the need for a high-skilled, high-wage economy with spending to level up the regions, the Conservative audience lapped it up. Overall though, I would give Starmer the edge on this metric. It was a high-stakes moment for Starmer and he had a high bar to clear in order to convince many sceptics even in his own party that he has the ability to rise to a big political occasion. While the speech overall could perhaps have benefitted from some prudent editing, the delivery was strong, serious and passionate.

While the sight of Starmer confidently facing down left-wing hecklers is unlikely to become as iconic as Neil Kinnock’s ‘Militant’ speech in 1985, this speech may nevertheless prove a turning point for Starmer – if he can build on it. Verdict: Labour win

Rishi vs Rachel

In his short tenure as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak has already faced three Shadow Chancellors across the despatch box. But on the basis of her showing at this Labour conference, Rachel Reeves is likely to stick around for a good deal longer. Her keynote speech last Monday was the biggest moment of Reeves’s 11-year political career so far and she rose to the occasion with an energised performance which firmly consigned to the rubbish bin the “boring, snoring” tag she unfairly earned from a Newsnight editor some years ago.

Building a theme of the ‘Everyday Economy’, setting out a strict code of ensuring value for money for taxpayers and announcing plans to support high streets by abolishing and replacing Business Rates, there was a lot packed into the Shadow Chancellor’s speech.

By contrast, Rishi Sunak steered clear of substantive policy content and focused instead on the principles of sound public finances and the “immorality” of leaving public debt for future generations. Sunak wants to harness the power of younger people and technological progress as the basis of our future economy, but we will need to wait a few weeks to hear more of his detailed plans in the upcoming Budget and Spending Review. Verdict: Labour win

Party unity

While Labour overall will be happy with what they got out of their conference, nobody could plausibly claim that it was a great advertisement for current levels of harmony within their ranks. Keir Starmer had to battle to get internal reforms across the line in the face of some significant opposition from the unions, and a portion of the conference was overshadowed by the resignation of Andy McDonald from the Shadow Cabinet.

Tensions also continue to simmer between Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner following her colourful choice of language to describe Boris Johnson in a fringe meeting. While the recent Government reshuffle has created some lingering discontent in the Conservative Party, the prevailing sense is still of a party largely unified behind a dominant leader in Boris Johnson. Verdict: Conservative win

Competing Cabinets

Party conferences present an opportunity for the wider ranks of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet to address their party faithful and lay down markers as ones to watch not just in their current briefs but for future promotion and even leadership.

After the recent reshuffle, this was the first big outing for many Conservative Secretaries of State in their new roles. Of those, the new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will likely be happiest with her showing with colleagues on the ground reporting that she was feted by many delegates as the real de facto Deputy Prime Minister and seems to be emerging as the preferred ‘heir to Boris’, as she channels a similar tone of hope and optimism.

While some in the Cabinet are believed to be not wholly enamoured of their new posts, the overall feeling following the reshuffle is that Boris Johnson now has in place the bulk of the top team which will take the party into the next election. For Labour, despite good speeches by Shadow Cabinet members such as David Lammy and Wes Streeting, a sense persists that the Shadow Cabinet is not quite firing on all cylinders in taking the Government to task.

There have been mutterings of a further reshuffle, but there is also the matter of Labour’s large cast of Mayors who increasingly act as an alternative focus of attention within the party. They are boosted by the credibility that comes with being in office, making real decisions and spending real money. Labour needs to think about how best to harness the popularity of Mayors such as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan while still giving their Shadow Cabinet the space to carve out greater profiles of their own. Verdict: Conservative win

Wooing the business community

While rallying the party activist base is a key function of party conferences, they are also among the best opportunities the parties to show a warm welcome to the business community. While Labour has much work to do to re-establish goodwill with business leaders after the Corbyn years, there was a strong effort made in this conference to show just how much Labour’s attitude towards business has changed.

A number of corporates who attended the business days at both conferences reported that the Labour event was better organised and more thoughtful, creating a sense that Labour is serious about building bridges with business. In contrast, a number of businesses who organised events in Manchester had a slightly chaotic experience with rooms double booked for instance.

The Conservatives undoubtedly have a head start in being seen as the party of business, but there is an opportunity for Labour to take advantage if Boris Johnson’s party take their position as the natural home of business for granted. Verdict: Labour win

From this highly scientific exercise, we emerge with a battling 3-2 Labour win at this conference season. In truth it was not a vintage conference year for either party, but overall I believe Labour will be slightly the happier with their week’s work. However, there is no doubt that the challenge ahead for Keir Starmer remains a daunting one. This conference will have given his confidence a boost, but there is so much more work still to do.

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Simon Fitzpatrick

Head of UK Public Affairs