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Virtual reality: Party conferences in the time of COVID

By Joe Cooper
02 October 2020
Public Affairs

Joe Cooper writes about how the decision to hold party conferences online has impacted politics

Party conference season is rarely a dull affair. Bringing together grassroots members with elected representatives, businesses and the media from all parts of the country, conferences offer a spotlight for political parties to debate policy and to set the political agenda.

Yet with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing restrictions that come with it, this year’s conference season has taken a much more understated approach with the events moving exclusively online for the very first time.

While this may provide a welcome relief for those politicians fearing the high profile gaffe - such as Theresa May’s 2017 conference speech, when a crumbling set and an unwanted P45 form stole the headlines, or Neil Kinnock’s unfortunate tumble into the cold Brighton sea in 1983 - for new party leaders, the maiden speeches to a packed conference hall provide a valuable opportunity to set course for a new direction within the party and generate a real sense of purpose and momentum.

Two leaders looking to make this impact were Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Ed Davey, following their resounding elections as leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively.

New leadership, new Labour?

“New leadership” were the watchwords ahead of Starmer’s keynote speech to Labour Connected – Labour's online replacement for party conference - with the new leader seeking to put clear distance between himself and Jeremy Corbyn’s five-year tenure. Paying tribute to Labour’s post-war election winners Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Starmer outlined his ambitions to follow suit in “modernising Britain” and called on the party to “get serious about winning”.

While under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, policymaking power within the party had shifted towards members at conference - most notably through member-led motions such as the Green New Deal - this year’s conference marked more of a listening exercise for the party. With no policy proposals being debated on the virtual conference floor, emphasis for the leadership instead turned to reflecting on where the party went wrong in December’s election defeat and in rebuilding trust with business and the wider electorate as it looks ahead to the 2024 election.

With early signs that the new leadership is ready to roll back some of the more radical policies of the Corbyn years, a first party conference could have posed a difficult test for Starmer. Yet, combined with the scale of his victory and the election of key allies within the party, such as the new General Secretary, David Evans, the shift online has been one factor in the limited internal opposition from factions on the left of the party around conference time.

And with the party taking its first poll lead since July 2019, early signs suggest that Starmer is indeed serious about taking the party back to being an electoral force.

A third way?

Similar to Labour, the Lib Dems are fresh from another leadership contest - the third in as many years - with activists hoping the election of Sir Ed Davey will enable the party to rebuild following successive electoral disappointments.

Unlike Labour’s conference, the Lib Dems were able to vote for policy motions, most notably choosing to back a Universal Basic Income and to endorse Davey’s position that the party should not commit to rejoin the EU in the short term, a significant moment for the leadership given the how the party had positioned itself on Europe at recent elections.

Looking ahead to Conservative Party conference

For the Conservatives, a year has proven to be a long time in politics. Ahead of the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, Boris Johnson was only a few months into his leadership, but without a majority and embroiled in the controversy around the decision to prorogue Parliament.

A year on, and following December’s decisive election victory and having “got Brexit done”, this should have been a celebratory occasion for the party. As it is, the country in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic and there are growing questions over the Government’s handling of it, even among Conservative members.

In contrast to Starmer and Davey, the decision to move conference online may provide a welcome relief for the Prime Minister. Rather than making the round trip to Birmingham under strict social distancing guidelines, he will now be able to deliver his speech remotely while continuing to lead the Government’s response to COVID.

Another cause for relief will be the knowledge that conferences can also provide a platform for future leadership bids – something the Prime Minister himself will be well aware of given the huge attention that always surrounded his own speeches on the conference fringe during David Cameron and Theresa May’s time as party leaders. Given the rise to prominence of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, now one of the most popular politicians in the country, the virtual setting for conference may provide a welcome reprieve for the Prime Minister from those with future leadership ambitions of their own.

For all the parties, then, this year’s online conference season has changed the nature of the politics we might have expected had they been able to go ahead as planned. Whatever the parties’ varying fortunes, however, they will all be united in hoping the 2020 virtual party conference season will prove to be a one-off, and that they can each get back to meeting in person next autumn.

Photo by Andras Vas on Unsplash