As the annual conference season draws to a close, possibly the last before a general election next year, the main political parties will be reflecting on the success or otherwise of the Manchester and Liverpool gatherings. Both conferences were attended by our political advisers, who reflect on Conservative and Labour conference below.
As with past conferences, the measure of success differs, this was Rishi Sunak’s first as Tory leader, a more stable but still divided party. Just a year ago Liz Truss led a chaotic prelude to her short time in No10 and this year’s collection of Nigel Farage (as journalist) and long awaited HS2 announcement wasn’t the best backdrop as the Prime Minister attempted to cast his leadership as a force for change. Contrast Liverpool and the balance of a Labour party consistently ahead in the polls, with a more united and coherent party than for the past decade – a gathering of Labour activists who were at pains not to be carried too high on the prospect of government.
In a change to the usual order, the Conservative’s met first. The ongoing saga of will they, won’t they with HS2 didn’t help Rishi Sunak’s first conference as party leader. While the Prime Minister’s team struggled to get a hold of the narrative over the three days in Manchester, the former leader and likely leadership hopeful, Liz Truss and Suella Braverman, were quick to try and seize the agenda. Where the party truly seemed united was on the importance of support for climate action, and this was reflected in the sheer number of well-attended fringe events giving serious attention to how the UK can credibly retain its status as a climate leader. The Conservatives, despite recent announcements seemingly backing away from climate policy, understand that this remains a key vote-winner. Cobbling together a sell-able vision for the climate to the electorate could be make-or-break for the party in any upcoming election.
Sunak’s conference speech, his most important as leader saw the Prime Minister attempt to create some separation between his premiership and what he referred to as the previous “30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one”. This will be a tough balancing act in the months ahead of the upcoming election. The 30-years Sunak references encompasses not only former Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but no fewer than five Conservative Prime Ministers. The key question going into an election year will be whether Sunak can create that separation and be given the opportunity to push forward with his ambitious reforms to education, or whether he will be rejected by the electorate as more of the same.
Keir Starmer’s speech embodied Labour conference in Liverpool this week. A leader and a party more at home with its values and a confident, clear, coherent, even hopeful message about Britain’s future – a decade of national renewal. The party wanted a clean conference, a solid platform speaking to business leaders and the wider public, the opportunity now to project Keir Starmer’s message for the country which faced down the shame of the Corbyn-era and proudly bound past Labour success with a party of service, building a new country over the next decade and beyond. The test now is for the party to successfully project the same confidence beyond Liverpool, and Westminster, to the country at large.