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What to expect from party conferences

Manchester/Liverpool skyline
By Fraser Raleigh
28 September 2023
Public Affairs
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Party conference season is upon us again, with the annual migration of politicians, journalists, party members and lobbyists from Westminster already underway.  

 This week the Liberal Democrats headed to the seaside for their get together in Bournemouth, where all the interest was in whether they can knock down even more bricks in the ‘blue wall’ of Conservative seats and – just maybe – find themselves holding the balance of power if Labour come up short in next year’s general election.  

The Conservatives are – unusually – sandwiched between the Lib Dem and Labour conferences this year, depriving them of the chance to have the last word and hit back at Labour. The party will be desperate for a smoother conference than last year’s outing in Birmingham, which marked the beginning of the end for Liz Truss’s short premiership as the mini-Budget unravelled and she was forced to U-turn on abolishing the 45p rate of tax.  

This year’s meeting in Manchester will also be the first time that Rishi Sunak addresses party members as leader. Indeed, the party will be hearing from its third leader in as many years. Sunak set the tone for his speech with his recent decision to delay and amend targets designed to help reach net zero.  

The conference slogan – also on display during that net zero speech – of “Long-term decisions for a brighter future" continues the pivot away from the five priorities Sunak set out at the start of the year towards a broader vision for the election. Many Conservatives have been worried in recent months that the five priorities on inflation, growth, debt, waiting lists, and small boats are just not ambitious enough to shift the polls. The run up to conference has therefore seen a number of political kites flown from No.10 – from replacing A-Levels to scrapping inheritance tax – all designed to lay the ground for Sunak to give party members and MPs something to rally behind and give them belief that they can take the fight to Labour.  

Sunak’s job, then, is simply to make sure that his party to leave Manchester happier than when they arrive. Something not exactly helped by train strikes deliberately timed by the rail unions to bookend the conference. 

The mood around Labour conference could hardly be more different. The party atmosphere at down at the dockside won’t quite match the city’s triumphant hosting of Eurovision earlier this year or see quite as many descend on the city centre as the 750,000 that lined the roads for Liverpool’s most recent Champions League victory parade. But it might not feel too far off it. 

The party is preparing for the most well-attended conference since it was last in government, as business leaders jostle for position to engage with the shadow ministers who they are betting will be in office in around a year’s time. In a far cry from the Corbyn years – and even the Miliband years - shadow cabinet ministers will find themselves in huge demand and their words pored over for indications of what their programme for government would be. 

Sir Keir Starmer will arrive in Liverpool with more control and authority over his party than at any time since he became leader in 2020. While the polls have narrowed slightly since Sunak’s net zero speech, Labour have been consistently riding high in the polls and dissent within the parliamentary party reduced to grumbles on the fringes. His long-awaited reshuffle earlier this month further consolidated his position, with strong media performers rewarded and key allies given control of the coming election campaign.  

How buoyant the party feels when the conference kicks off in Liverpool, though, will be hugely influenced by events 200 miles further north in the early hours of next Friday morning. The Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election will either provide proof of Labour’s Scottish resurgence or trigger serious concern that the SNP could still deny them a Westminster majority next year. The party is throwing everything at the by-election in a seat that has swung between the SNP and Labour at the last four general elections. Victory next week would embolden Labour activists arriving in Liverpool, but defeat could just have them spying a few worrying dark clouds on the horizon as they look towards what they hope are the sunlit uplands of a return to government. 

Starmer’s job, therefore, is to project himself as the Prime Minister-in-waiting while clamping down on any sense of complacency among the members who increasingly believe he is. 

Conference season, though, is a tricky time both to predict and to navigate. Party bosses know from bitter experience that unexpected rows almost always erupt and threaten to throw their carefully planned messages out the window. Or that a leaders’ speech that feels game-changing in the moment is often forgotten the moment the party gets back to Westminster.  

Their biggest worry, perhaps, is that for all the choreographed announcements and painstakingly drafted and re-drafted speeches, with timing ticking down to next year’s election the people they all really need to reach – the voters – might not yet be paying much attention at all.