The Labour Party gathered this week for what many believe will be its final conference before the next general election. Labour Party Conference used to be something of a battleground, as the factions linked to Keir Starmer worked to marginalise the Party’s left wing. This year, with the battle for control of the party over, the focus was instead on the election battle to come.
With the polls suggesting that Labour are on course for victory, the Shadow Cabinet and their aides warned against complacency, cautioning that the election fight ahead would be difficult in the extreme.
Realism was the dominant theme of the conference. Not just realism about the difficulty of fighting and winning elections but also about the challenges of governing, with little to spend and public services in urgent need of reform.
Below are the main takeaways for businesses from the Montfort team after this year’s Labour Party Conference:
Business engagement has changed
The Labour Party’s attempts to woo businesses after the ill-feeling of the Corbyn years have been well documented. This year there was a shift in the dynamic as business leaders arrived en masse, competing intensely for the attention of Shadow Ministers.
As became clear time and again at the Conference, engagement alone is no longer enough to build a strong relationship with the Labour Leadership. At this stage in the political cycle, with a broad consensus about the lack of money to spend and policy platforms largely set, those businesses making real headway are the ones presenting coherent, detailed policy proposals that do not require extra spending.
Reform first, spending later
Labour’s policy platform centres on a commitment to undertake forward-looking, pragmatic reforms to establish the conditions for better economic growth and improved public services. Nowhere is this truer than the NHS, where Shadow Home Secretary Wes Streeting is preaching a message of reform or die to one of the Labour Party’s sacred cows.
The challenge for a potential future Labour Government is that reform takes time and requires significant buy-in from stakeholders such as businesses and trade unions. Bringing these groups along will take time but it will create the space for consistent policy engagement from businesses as the Government looks to nail the details of these proposals.
YIMBY’s on the rise
Perhaps the clearest example of the Labour Party’s plan to drive growth without further spending is in housing and planning. Labour’s pledge to sweep away the red tape and get Britain building again puts the Labour Party in a position to capitalise on the public support for more housing that Boris Johnson used so successfully in 2019. It also puts further pressure on the Prime Minister as he looks to hold together the 2019 electoral coalition of generally pro-building voters in the North and Midlands and the more affluent, more development sceptical voters in the Blue Wall.
A two-term job
Shadow Cabinet Ministers and their advisers took pains throughout the conference to stress that there would be no quick fixes to the UK’s problems. Such is the condition of the UK’s public finances they warned, that the focus of the first term of a future Labour Government would have to be on repairs and consolidation.
It was in this vein that the FT reported on Wednesday that the party is further scaling back its once landmark pledge to invest £28bn a year to support the green transition. Labour has now confirmed that it plans to reach this target by the end rather than the middle of a potential first term and that it will include the roughly £8bn already invested in this area by the Government. For businesses, this will likely be an advantage in terms of policy continuity, but it does mean that the full impact of Government investment on the economy may not be seen until 2029 at the earliest.
Don’t mention the (Culture) War
One of the most striking elements of Labour’s strategy is something they choose to avoid talking about, the Culture Wars. Where last week’s Conservative Party Conference was filled with allusions to contentious disputes on gender and education, the Labour Party Conference was distinct in that none of these issues really surfaced.
By choosing not to campaign on these issues Labour is banking on the idea that they will not be major considerations for the electorate at the next general election and that there is far more to lose by being on any side than there is to gain. Instead, Labour want to focus on core issues around economic growth and public services. Expect Conservative Party strategists to test this theory extensively in the weeks and months ahead.
AI has arrived
AI companies were out in force at the Labour Conference this week, with the sector attempting to present itself as a constructive partner to a future Government in defining its regulatory environment. So far AI has been a background issue for the Labour Leadership but with its potential implications for employment and democracy uncertain, it seems likely that will this be the last conference where AI is not a central part of the policy debate.
If you would like to discuss any of the above with the team or have specific questions regarding other policy developments at the Labour Party Conference, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us through the firstname.lastname@example.org address.