Party conference season: what did we learn?

Party conference season

Jamie Kerr, the IoD’s parliamentary affairs officer, reflects on the Labour, Conservative and Scottish National party conferences and assesses the political dynamics at Westminster

The autumn party conference season seldom arouses a great deal of passion outside London SW1.

The prospect of large crowds of Westminster-based think tankers, hacks, lobbyists and legislators de-camping to strategic regional centres is at least as unexciting as it is daunting.

However, as political bellwethers go, party conferences – particularly those following general elections – can be extremely useful.

Whether licking wounds or celebrating victories, the party faithful use these weeks as a chance to gather in numbers and take stock of their leadership. So how did the major parties fare this year?


“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill famously and allegedly.

These words may bring some crumb of comfort to the 196 members of the parliamentary Labour party who did not support Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership contest, as well as a number who did. Certainly, however, there was no lack of enthusiasm at the Labour conference in Brighton at the end of September.

Many stalwarts of the Blair, Brown, and Miliband eras chose to stay away this year. However, they were more than made up for by the crowds of new and returning members – many of them £3 supporters, on whose thrifty backs Corbyn was swept to victory.

The mood in the party grassroots verged on celebration and Corbyn’s promise of a “kinder politics” and “a more caring society” certainly struck home.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, set out a radical and considered economic agenda for the party in a speech much less fiery than those he has delivered in the past.

Placing Labour firmly to the left of its former leadership, he announced a review into the Bank of England’s inflation mandate, as well as the work of the Treasury and HMRC.

He also detailed cuts to tax breaks for right-to-buy landlords, further measures to tackle tax avoidance and evasion, the introduction of a “real” living wage and swingeing cuts to “corporate welfare”.

However, the warm welcome that greeted his remarks in the conference hall, as well as Corbyn’s announcements on the nuclear deterrent and railway nationalisation, masked deep rifts within the parliamentary party.

Across fringe events and panel discussions, Labour MPs and even members of the frontbench were happy to openly disagree with the leadership, and the disjointed message on Trident renewal underlined the discord at the top of the party.

It remains to be seen whether Corbyn’s apparent willingness to allow such disharmony will be seen as a crucial weakness, or a testament to the success of the “new politics”.

Meanwhile for the business community, the instinct will be to warily reserve judgement. Corbyn’s speech offered little in the way of specific policy and the need to prioritise competition and growth. However, positive noises from shadow business secretary Angela Eagle and her team are to be welcomed cautiously.


Hot on the heels of the Labour outing was the Conservative conference in Manchester.

Despite having unexpectedly won the first outright Tory majority for 23 years, the celebration was much more muted than either the Labour or SNP conferences.

Senior figures conceded that the need for those attending to dodge eggs and weather significant verbal abuse at the entrance had a dampening effect on the mood.

Unsurprisingly, debate over Britain’s membership of the EU dominated fringe discussions at the conference. Eurosceptics were out in much greater numbers than their counterparts in the ‘remain’ camp, who have been criticised for their sluggish start to the campaign.

With the majority of members waiting to see the results of David Cameron’s renegotiations, the IoD policy team in Manchester chose instead to focus discussions on the crucial issues of UK productivity and the need to consolidate a better framework for scale-up funding in Britain.

Meanwhile, the mood in the conference hall was buoyant as the party leadership looked to blend electoral self-congratulation with an appeal to the disenchanted voters on the centre left of British politics.

Seen by the Tories as being disappointed by Miliband and abandoned by Corbyn, these voters are key to the prime minister’s one-nation project.

Vowing an “all-out assault on poverty” and supported by Boris Johnson, who worries that the “gulf in pay packets yawns ever wider”, Cameron planted centrist rhetoric at the heart of modern Tory ideology.

Many Tories had also hoped that the coup of securing former Labour minister Andrew Adonis to head the government’s new infrastructure commission (resigning the Labour whip to do so) would lead to a slew of no-confidence votes on Corbyn. However, anyone who expected a torrent of departures from Labour benches has had to make do with a meagre dribble so far.

Chancellor George Osborne, in a policy-heavy speech, also called for the party to offer a welcoming hand to voters who feel “abandoned” by Labour.

He announced not only the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission, but also further sales of shares in Lloyds worth £2bn, and a historic devolution of power over business rates (worth around £28bn annually to the exchequer).

There was a great deal for business to welcome here, not least the news that it will become far more difficult for infrastructure planning to be used as a political football.

The announcement on the devolution of power over business rates is also positive, although it remains to be seen how the politics of it will play out.

Power to raise rates will only be in the hands of mayoral combined authorities, which have been roundly criticised across Labour benches.

Meanwhile, home secretary Theresa May scaled up her rhetoric on immigration to a level that will have left a sour taste in the mouths of many business leaders.

The IoD responded sharply to her comments, making clear that the government risks “turning away the world’s best and brightest, putting internal party politics ahead of the country, and helping our competitor economies instead of our own”.


The Scottish National party has steadily professionalised its conference operations since coming to power in Holyrood in 2007.

In a matter of years it has moved from small venues, traditionally associated with the gatherings of fringe political movements, to one of the only two venues in Scotland capable of holding its increasingly fired-up delegates.

Some 3,500 registered to attend the conference and, typically of the SNP, they were drawn from a rich pool of backgrounds and political persuasions. That being said, the average age of delegates felt significantly higher than those at Labour or Conservative conferences.

Amid loud plaudits for their performance as a powerful voice for Scotland in London, the Westminster 55 were welcomed home as returning heroes.

Having stayed up late to vote against Osborne’s fiscal responsibility charter the evening before, the parliamentary gang quickly tucked in to the conference’s rich programme of plenary sessions and fringe debates.

The conference was not nearly as heavy on announcements as it was on debate, with one former SNP adviser telling journalists “we don’t really do policy”.

However, there were some points worth picking out. In her remarks to delegates, Nicola Sturgeon announced a house-building programme that will see 50,000 new affordable homes built by 2020; she also played down expectations for another referendum in the near future, to the dismay of many delegates.

Sturgeon did hint, however, that either an unwelcome result in the European referendum or sustained high public support for independence may persuade her to change her mind.

John Swinney, the Scottish finance minister, made a similar announcement to the chancellor’s on business rates, announcing that local authorities would be given the power to cut them within weeks.

This move comes on the back of significant criticism of the perceived highly centralised nature of the Scottish state under the SNP.

While the mood within the hall was strong, though, the economic reality on the doorstep of the conference made for uncomfortable side viewing.

The slump in the global oil price remains a real headache for the SNP leadership. Less than a year ago, it was predicting £8bn in revenue this year from oil and gas; this figure is now forecast to be £500m.

At the same time, an industry report has projected job losses of 23,000 by 2020 for those working in North Sea oilfields.

A great deal of this pain will be felt in Aberdeen and the surrounding area, where the reality is that many feel as removed from Edinburgh as they do from London.

The year ahead at Westminster

All things considered, the conference season provided a fair indication of what the political dynamics in Westminster will look like over the 12 months.

Labour, divided in parliament and unified at its activist base, will tread an uncertain path. While Corbyn’s mandate is watertight, support from senior figures in his party continues to ebb away, and uncertainty around the party line on a number of high-profile issues will only compound this trend.

The Conservatives continue in their attempts to be all things to all (or most) people. With four-and-a-half years to go before an election, they are already making a play for the voters on the centre-left of UK politics.

Meanwhile, ever stronger language on immigration and an unshakeable ambition to redress the balance on tax credit spending indicate that the right wing of the party still has one hand on the wheel of government.

The SNP is content to bide its time. The phrase “Tory cuts” still goes down about as well north of the border as an England win at Murrayfield and while Labour is fractured in Westminster, it seems all but shattered in most parts of Scotland.

Scandals notwithstanding, the nationalists’ route to another majority at Holyrood looks inevitable.

That being said, 2016 is set to throw a few curve-balls. Rising interest rates, a US presidential election and a possible EU referendum will likely interrupt the current political rhythm in the UK.

Anyone looking to bet on the shape of British politics next year would do well to consider the last six months. Take the longest odds or steer well clear of the bookies.


About author

Jamie Kerr

Jamie Kerr

Jamie Kerr is parliamentary affairs officer at the Institute of Directors. Having joined the IoD in June 2014, he is responsible for assisting with policy development and parliamentary affairs. Jamie has an MA in politics from the University of Edinburgh.

No comments

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.