Both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson faced a conference first this year. Starmer in his first major public outing since winning the leadership in April last year and Johnson in his first conference since securing a historic 80-seat majority almost two years ago.
Both had difficult tasks in front of them. The Labour leader had to make himself relevant in a national debate that has been focused on Covid and vaccines while defining himself both against his left-wing and a Prime Minister who is consistently ahead in the polls and dominating his party.
Johnson’s task was to rise above the series of calamities that have befallen the Government in recent weeks and to give some form of structure against a backdrop of rising prices, empty shelves, queues for petrol, and the prospect of a shortage of turkeys at Christmas.
Starmer opted to use his conference to challenge the Corbynite left with a series of rule changes that shifted power to select MPs and leadership contenders from ordinary members to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). This was smart, as he cauterised the left years out from the next election. His Shadow Chancellor set out principles of fiscal responsibility and a major announcement to spend £28b each year until 2030 on investment in green infrastructure and jobs. Other announcements included national care services, police hubs and powers to control anti-social behaviour, and the end of charitable tax status for private schools to fund education reform. These had echoes of the Blair/Brown era which Starmer revived in his conference speech, marking a clear break with the Corbyn age.
In all, Labour strategists will be happy with the outcome – although events conspired to deny him the coverage he might have expected on the national news bulletins. The senior Shadow Cabinet team put out a unified message not seen for some time, but questions remain about Labour’s ability to cut through to former voters in the north and Midlands who continue to give Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt.
The Conservatives set out to have a low-key conference within the context of infrastructure problems and the developing row following the sentencing of Sarah Everard’s murderer. In addition, there was (and still is) a sense of unease amongst normally supportive newspapers, and within the Conservative Party itself, over rises to national insurance contributions. However, the PM seemingly managed to turn the turmoil to his advantage and a succession of Ministers sought to frame any turbulence as being a consequence of a transition to a high wage, high skilled economy which, says Johnson, was the change that people had voted for in 2016 and 2019 – and he’s not wrong.
The Conservatives are now outflanking Labour on its left in terms of public spending with a £500m extension to job retention schemes and there is some traction in the notion that business bears some responsibility in ‘left behind’ areas for driving down wages through immigrant labour. Here we can see some of the themes developing around the ground that the next general election will be fought – Johnson’s year zero Conservatives have begun the change that will increase wages versus Labour who want to turn back the clock back to a high immigration low wage economy.
While there were limited policy announcements in Manchester, a lively fringe scene saw a number of ideas bubbling up on areas like infrastructure funding, the role of purpose-driven private capital investment, planning reforms for housebuilding, and incentives for next-gen renewable power. So, there is some thinking going on that offers a number of opportunities to engage with the government as the hard yards begin on policy development around the levelling up agenda.
Given the tricky backdrop and the potential number of bear traps to fall into, the Tories left Manchester in high spirits. However, the headlines the following day and some of the initial polling would suggest that the prospect of being hit in the pocket has meant that voters have started paying attention earlier in the political cycle than they would normally.
The next few months will be crucial for both parties. The likelihood is that infrastructure issues will last into the winter and the budget and spending review later this month will lead to further belt-tightening. The battle now is to define and frame the debate as we head into Christmas.