What business needs to know
This year’s party conference season will be like no other. Party conference season marks an important milestone in the political calendar and following a year of COVID-19 restrictions, this autumn the parties will be seeking to make up for lost time.
When MPs return to Westminster from their summer recess on 6 September, speculation and rumour will be replaced by policy as the annual political party gatherings get underway. This year will be no different. Despite, party conference coming in different forms – from virtual, hybrid to the usual soiree in Brighton – there will be plenty of issues for businesses to contend with.
We meet again
It seems like a lifetime ago that the parties came together for their last party conferences. Back then, there was an election on the horizon, Brexit dominated, Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Opposition and there were many promises of increased investment in everything that mattered to voters.
Since then, Boris Johnson won the biggest majority since the 1980s, the UK has formally left the EU, and Keir Starmer was elected Leader of the Labour Party, as was Ed Davey for the Lib Dems.
As well as a roller coaster of a two years in the world of politics, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it. It has also put a pause on the Conservatives delivering many of their manifesto promises. And that’s why this conference season will be so important – it will be a time for the parties to reflect, but also to renew ambition.
Against this backdrop, we are likely to see the parties come together – in-person and virtually – to reengage with their grassroots. The Prime Minister will no doubt want to highlight the success of the vaccine programme, while Sir Keir will be rallying the troops and showcasing his leadership credentials.
But, while COVID-19 will continue to be a hot topic for discussion, so will the recovery, and all the parties will be wanting to pitch their vision for economic transformation.
In Manchester, the Conservatives will want to get back on track with delivering their manifesto promises, from levelling-up all parts of the UK to investing in schools, the police, and the NHS. We can expect a raft of announcements and Cabinet Minister speeches, as well as the Prime Minister going big on how we build back greener, given the conferences’ proximity to COP26.
Linked with the recovery, the economy, and how we’re going pay for the pandemic will be a question on everyone’s mind. All eyes will be on Rishi Sunak, who will take to the conference stage for the first time as Chancellor. In his address, Sunak will have to set out how he intends to spur investment and manage the public finances. However, he won’t be giving too much away with the Budget set to be just a few weeks later, on 27 October, closely followed by the Spending Review.
Starmer’s first conference as leader
Setting out a plan for the recovery will also be a key theme for Labour’s gathering in Brighton at the end of September.
With party conference a vital part of Labour’s policy formation, the agenda is likely to be jam-packed with Keir stamping his mark firmly on the party’s direction of policy travel. CBI intelligence from meetings with Labour’s front bench and party officials suggest key focuses of the party will be on the race to net-zero, the skills agenda, as well as committing themselves as the party of business.
All roads lead back to COVID-19
Yet, for all the talk about the recovery and what policies can help boost the economy, COVID-19 and the government’s plan as we head into autumn is likely to feature strongly across all party conferences. Whether through conference speeches, fringe events or media interviews, MPs will be looking to make their voices heard at every opportunity to influence the debate.
At the Conservative conference, we can safely assume that the government will be focusing on the UK’s world leading vaccine programme. However, we may see some friction within certain elements of the party, who have taken a stronger line against some COVID-19 restrictions.
As for the Labour party, they will use conference to criticise government over particular areas over the past 18 months, at the same time as showcasing Keir as a credible opposition leader with policies to help the recovery.
Similarly, the Lib Dems and the SNP will use their virtual conferences to celebrate their recent electoral success and to make clear their opposition to how the UK government has handled parts of the pandemic.
And for the business community, the 2021 party conference season will be one to watch. The rhetoric and policy that is determined at conference will no doubt impact firms and the recovery.