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Party Conference analysis - Are the Conservatives on the right track or can Labour steam ahead?

Sunak at Conservative Party Conference
By SEC Newgate team
05 October 2023
Public Affairs
conservative party conference

Image: Parsons Media

All Change at Crewe Please, as Sunak Attempts to put his premiership back on track

By Phil Briscoe

Elections often bring with them demographic catchphrases and we have seen the likes of ‘Mondeo Man’ and ‘Worcester Woman’ in previous contests. Yesterday, Rishi Sunak’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference perhaps provided us with the makings of one for the future – the ‘Crewe Kid’!

They will be too young to vote in the 2024 election, but six-year-olds living in Crewe were one of the most impacted by the policy-heavy speech from the Prime Minister yesterday.

The prohibitive measures announced on smoking will mean that none of today’s six-year-olds (and indeed nobody under the age of 14) will ever be able to legally purchase cigarettes, subject of course to the measure being passed on a free vote in the Commons. We can expect a lot of political debate around freedom and the power of the state on this one.

On education, our ‘Crewe Kid’ can expect a big shift by the time they get past their GCSEs. Out go the old A-levels and T-levels, and in their place, we will see the new combined Advanced British Standards (ABS) which will maintain the focus on five subjects rather than the current average of three. Maths and English will be standard until 18, including compulsory resits for GCSEs in both subjects, and an additional 195 hours per annum in the classroom will help to ensure that the new baccalaureate-style qualification delivers the educational “silver bullet” that Sunak set out. However, consultation, implementation and teacher recruitment mean that the new system is not expected to be in place until 2033, so any seven-year-olds who hate maths can breathe a sigh of relief.

After achieving their ABS, the six-year-olds of today can then expect a slimmed down choice of degrees as the Prime Minister promised to stop “…universities from enrolling students on courses that do nothing for their life chances.” The last Labour government highlighted ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees. and Sunak has previously talked off the ‘rip-off’ degrees, but time will tell if this impacts beyond surf science and modules on Harry Potter or David Beckham, into courses such as media studies, arts and humanities.

However, the headlines were dominated by the cancellation of the second leg of HS2, following a week of leaks and speculation about the ultimate decision. As a result, anyone growing up in Crewe, will know that their train journeys to London, Birmingham or Manchester will all take longer than they would have done if Sunak had opted for the alternative. However, alongside the local frustration at the decision, there is also jubilation from local objectors and environmental groups who have campaigned against the route, so on the whole, the media response has been more balanced than some may have expected. Even in the Tale of  Two Mayors, while Andy Burnham predictably criticised, Andy Street welcomed the improvements he had lobbied for instead of pursuing the nuclear resignation option – it was indeed the best of times and the worst of times for Sunak.

The speech covered many other topics including immigration, the economy, gender and the NHS, but fundamentally was about positioning Sunak is the agent of change while being the incumbent. He dismissed the last thirty years of political leadership as being focused on rhetoric and convenience rather than the tough (and right decisions) and by throwing both Conservative and Labour leaders under the bus, he harked back to the Thatcher years and suggested he was the leader to continue that approach by changing from what we have known in recent years.

Mentioning ‘change’ 30 times in a speech is a high-risk approach for someone who has been a Member of Parliament for eight years, a Minister for five years and the current Prime Minister for almost a year, but the clearly crafted narrative on HS2 was an attempt at showing resolve and strong leadership on the tough decisions – the leaked information (possibly deliberately) set off a publicity firestorm that he did not yield to. This week at conference, we heard from pollsters and focus group data that repeatedly referenced Sir Keir Starmer as someone who the public do not yet fully trust or understand, with a perception that he will say anything and change his mind to win the election, hence the Starmer flip-flops that were on sale in the Conservative shop.

The Sunak speech was a considered and deliberate attempt to contrast himself with his Labour opponent. We’ll find out in the next 12 months or so whether the approach has worked, although we’ll need to wait until the 2035 General Election to see if the ‘Crewe Kids’ have had their first vote shaped by the speeches from 2023 in Manchester!

The Great Train Robbery

By Ian Morris

'Rail strikes will impact travel on this day'. So went the message on the Trainline app as I planned my commute into Manchester, as if to prove a point about sub-standard rail transport. I was heading to an event hosted by pro-manchester for the Manchester business community about transport infrastructure, coincidentally taking place exactly as the Prime Minister, just a stone’s throw away, was axing the region’s biggest planned rail infrastructure investment since the Industrial Revolution.

HS2 has been badly mismanaged, and the cost overruns are serious. But the view in the room, at least from those I spoke to, was that this decision probably wouldn’t have been taken if construction had started – as it should have – at the northern end of the line, despite the best return on investment in the HS2 business case being on the Manchester to Birmingham leg. “Nobody cancelled Crossrail when its costs were spiralling,” as one attendee pointed out to me.

Though no-one had properly digested the potential impacts, particularly alongside the package of “new” (largely re-hashed) projects the Government said funds would be reallocated to, the clear initial reaction was that HS2 cancellation would have myriad negative impacts on things including freight and passenger capacity; jobs in the construction sector; economic growth; and an erosion of investor confidence in the UK’s ability to deliver large-scale infrastructure projects.

Businesses who for years have been making investment decisions, based on what governments have promised for many years, are now left to recalculate, if it is not too late. Not to mention the human cost of those who have been displaced, now entirely unnecessarily.

The greater concern was over the fact that Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), the planned rail network that would have delivered badly needed transformational change in journey times and capacity between the major towns and cities of the north, and a vast array of knock-on social and economic benefits, was contingent on HS2 being built. Anyone who relies on rail to travel between the towns and cities of the north will be aware of how wretched the experience can be, in terms of overcrowding and lack of punctuality.

Amongst those I spoke to with experience of working in transport infrastructure projects in the region, there was heavy scepticism over the likelihood of many of the re-hashed projects announced actually being delivered.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, came to speak to us between listening to Sunak’s announcement and undertaking media interviews.

He said what was announced at the Conservative Party Conference was not a coherent plan that would solve the bottlenecks in Leeds and Manchester and lack of capacity on the rail network across the north; or the problems of capacity between Manchester to Birmingham and London. Thus, he said, ”we haven’t got a plan here that works north-south or east-west."

He rightly pointed to the total lack of coherence of the government’s new plan, and absence of consultation in its creation, in contrast to the transport plan that northern leaders and transport body Transport for the North (TfN) had been working on successfully for years.

Though nobody in the room would have blamed him for a hint of bitterness after what might have felt like a betrayal, Burnham was refreshingly upbeat. He saw the positives in any new investment for local transport projects, and seems minded to regather with other northern leaders, pool resources and consider the best way forward.

This focus on collaboration and consensus is something the north has become very good at in recent years, at least amongst business and political leaders. Just a week or so ago, these leaders reaffirmed their position that HS2 and NPR in full were vital to truly transform the north, at the TfN board meeting. Their plans must now change, but their continued ability to speak in a unified voice will be key.

As for me, given the rail strikes I got most of the way home by taking the Metrolink to Manchester Airport - a tram line that I can confirm has existed since 2014, despite its odd appearance in the Government’s list of promised projects yesterday. And a huge success story of local authority collaboration it is too.

I’m not sure how Rishi got home from Manchester. But I very much doubt it was by train.

Ready for the party? Ready for power?

By Sara Price

There is much hype around the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, starting on Sunday 8th October. Speak to the Labour events team and they will tell you that it will be the most exciting since 1997, the busiest in years, oversubscribed by businesses with a waiting list for Business Day, and not an easy task to get a meeting with a Shadow Minister.

Keir Starmer will arrive in Liverpool with a significant lead in the polls - 21 points ahead of the Conservatives (YouGov). But he still has to a job on his hands, needing to elevate the narrative from ‘Labour as fiscally responsible’ and towards his ambitions for what a Labour government would look like on the ground.

Over the past six months, policy from Labour has been shifting gear from ambitious to pragmatic. The Party scaled back plans to borrow £28 billion a year to invest in green jobs and industry as Starmer and Reeves sought to reconsider spending in an attempt to prove its fiscal credibility. Other pledges were on the chopping block too – from scrapping charitable status for private schools, to removing the two-child benefits cap.

With the general election looming, strategically it makes sense to consider the fiscal decisions that Starmer and his team will need to undertake if in government. However, as Sunak has spent the summer rebranding himself and redefining policy direction, Labour - despite leading in the polls - now runs the risk of losing the policy narrative to the Conservative’s message of “we won’t bankrupt the British people” to meet net zero.

Clear lines of division were created in Sunak’s conference speech on Wednesday, and Starmer now needs to demonstrate in Liverpool that he has a clear vision for government and can avoid any traps the Conservatives seek to set for him and his Shadow Cabinet.

From the ‘war on motorists’ to the trans debate, the Conservatives used their conference to set a clear dividing line on policy between Labour.

Given Starmer has moved Labour to the centre ground again, silenced (to a certain extent) the left of the Party, and positioned Labour as ready for power, at conference Starmer must articulate the policy direction that will possibly define their success in 2024.

He needs to put to rest criticism that a victory is more a result of three different prime ministers in four years and an economy in poor health, following Brexit and ‘partygate’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.