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Party conferences 2021: politics, power plays and positioning

Words by:
Director
October 12, 2021

Party conferences are always an annual spectacle of power plays, positioning, and of course, politics. The 2021 Labour and Conservative conferences did not disappoint – below are our key takeaways of the main themes and messages that emerged over the two weeks.

1. Both party leaders sought to put clear water between them and their predecessors

Starmer sought to lay the ghost of Corbyn-past to rest by changing Party rules and staring down hecklers during his speech, but Johnson did not pull any punches in his assessment of May and Cameron.  Comments like, “We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills, and low productivity – all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration” were made to foster the idea that the Johnson administration is new, not a continuation of a Conservative Government for more than a decade.  Perhaps more importantly, they were made to make the case that he will need some time to turn things around.  However, the risk of a leader taking a ‘Blue on Blue’ attack line is that he is seen to condone such behaviour by others – weakening the fabric of Party discipline and the likelihood of public rifts within Government.  In the run-up to the Budget later this month this could become a problem – the spat between Sunak and Kwarteng being a potential case in point.

2. The Shadow Cabinet used conference as an opportunity to court business

Recognising that the public’s perception of Labour’s economic competence remains a real issue 13-years after the financial crash, Starmer and Reeves led a business charm offensive in Brighton.  In a nod to the success of Brown and Blair in using public support from business in the mid-90s to rebuild trust and confidence in Labour’s economic stewardship, the Shadow Cabinet were keen to be seen as listening to concerns and promising action through measures like abolishing business rates.  Polling suggests the method is starting to work with more people thinking that the Conservatives are most likely to raise taxes and are handling tax badly.

3. The Government used conference as an opportunity to put the spotlight on business

For the traditional party of business, it was an all together different situation.  Yes, there were regular mentions of business and Government working successfully together, but ministers were at pains to reiterate that it is the job of private enterprise, not the State, to manage commercial risk.  The point that profit is associated with successfully navigating jeopardy was repeatedly made by ministers at numerous fringe discussions to some teeth gnashing from industry representatives in the audience who see inflation and supply chain issues as a political fall-out.  The tone was in line with Johnson’s belief that Government needs and can afford to be ‘tough’ with business, especially at this stage of the election cycle.  The PM is apparently not yet perturbed by organisations like the FSB, NFU and CBI, as well as companies such as Iceland, becoming increasingly critical of the Government’s approach.

4. Net Zero was the dominant topic of discussion at both conferences

Over the last decade there has been a significant increase in the number of fringe events looking at the response to climate change and the opportunity for green growth, but this was the year that Net Zero dominated the discussion.  Politicians from both parties presented decarbonisation as a way to improve security of supply in response to global shockwaves, and as a way to increase economic prosperity via new green jobs. There was significant enthusiasm from party members of both colours, but questions about cost and fairness repeatedly bubbled up from the floor.

5. The battle ground will be cost of living

If Net Zero was in the title of every other fringe event, questions about plans to address cost of living concerns were on the lips of attendees, both in Brighton and in Manchester.  Labour sees inflation as an opportunity to weaken confidence in Conservative economic stewardship, while there were concerns among the Conservative rank and file that this is an open flank that needs to be covered quickly from attack.  The next standing flashpoint will be the Budget on 27th October, ahead of which the Institute of Fiscal Studies has warned the Chancellor that there is little wriggle room for big spending pledges. It will follow hot on the heels of the next Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee meeting where eyes will be on a potential split in opinion on the base rate.  While the rate may not change in early November, a split in the vote could signal a potential uplift in the New Year which would make borrowing costlier.

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