Key points from a conference season of contrasts

The PA news agency picks through the main issues from the 2023 party conference season.

Christopher McKeon
Wednesday 11 October 2023 11:30 BST
Sir Keir Starmer gives his speech to the Labour Party conference in Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA)
Sir Keir Starmer gives his speech to the Labour Party conference in Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Wire)

The national party conference season draws to a close on Wednesday after three weeks of speeches, announcements and networking in Bournemouth, Manchester and Liverpool.

The SNP is still to hold its annual gathering at the weekend, but the UK-wide parties are preparing to head back to Westminster for what is expected to be the final 12 months before the next general election.

Below, the PA news agency looks back at the key points from this year’s contrasting conferences.

– Who was there?

Attendance is usually obvious at party gatherings, with MPs, activists, lobbyists and businesspeople all making their way to the UK’s conference centres.

But this year a few guests stood out more than others.

In Manchester, where the Conservatives held their annual meeting, the star of the show for some was former prime minister Liz Truss, who received a rapturous reception at her “Great British Growth Rally” on the conference fringe.

However, Ms Truss may not have been welcomed by all – Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen said she should have shown more “awareness” and stayed away – but her call for tax cuts added to pressure on Rishi Sunak.

Another surprise visitor to Manchester was Nigel Farage, the former Ukip and Brexit Party leader, who showed his support for Ms Truss and was filmed dancing with former home secretary Dame Priti Patel at one late-night drinks reception.

His attendance prompted questions about whether he is preparing to join the Conservatives, something senior figures in the party said they would welcome but which Mr Farage himself suggested is not on the cards.

Despite these high-profile guests, however, numbers appeared to be down on previous years, with many events sparsely attended and several MPs choosing to stay away.

Liverpool, in contrast, was heaving for the Labour Party’s annual conference.

The most obvious difference was the number of businesses that were represented, the result of both a long-running charm offensive by Sir Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, and the party’s commanding poll lead.

Not only were more businesses there, they were represented by more senior people. One Blair-era adviser told PA that where companies would previously send their communications directors, they were now sending chief executives.

– Who was in charge?

Parties hope for a disciplined conference, allowing them to push their messages without the distraction of infighting and disunity.

Labour largely achieved this, with almost no prominent MPs deviating from the official party line.

But Sir Keir Starmer did not have everything his own way.

Several protesters were ejected from the venue, including one who threw glitter over the Labour leader at the start of his speech to the main conference hall, and a number of young environmental activists who interrupted a meeting on net zero.

In Manchester, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at times struggled to assert himself as questions swirled around the fate of HS2.

Some Conservative MPs were accused of auditioning for a post-election leadership contest, while others appeared to stray into conspiracy theories.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey was also unable to assert his will over his party, losing a key vote on housing targets which means the party will fight the next election on a policy of building 380,000 homes per year across England rather than the more local approach favoured by the leadership.

– What were the key policy announcements?

Rishi Sunak had three major announcements in his leader’s speech in Manchester.

The Prime Minister scrapped the HS2 link to Manchester, replacing it with a series of smaller transport projects across the country.

That list of projects included some that have already been built, with Mr Sunak later claiming they had only been meant as “illustrative” examples.

He also pledged to phase out smoking by raising the age for buying cigarettes by a year every year, meaning those aged 14 now will never be able to purchase them legally.

And the Prime Minister announced a major reform to A-levels and T-levels, saying he will replace them with a baccalaureate-style “Advanced British Standard” in England.

In Liverpool, Labour’s big announcement was on housing.

Sir Keir Starmer pledged to build 1.5 million homes over the next Parliament – an average of 300,000 a year – including a string of new towns to prevent home ownership becoming a “luxury of the privileged few”.

This would also involve reforming planning laws to enable more housebuilding, although Labour denied it wants a “revolution” in the planning system.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves reaffirmed her commitment to charging VAT on private school fees, and announced measures to tackle fraud and waste including a “Covid Corruption Commission” to claw back money lost to corruption during the pandemic.

The Liberal Democrats’ major policy was on cancer care, with Sir Ed Davey saying he would invest £4 billion in NHS cancer treatment over the next five years and give cancer patients a legal right to start treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral.

Sir Ed said he hopes to build a cross-party consensus “to make cancer a top priority in the next parliament”.

– What other conferences took place this year?

Away from the major conferences, Britain’s smaller parties staged gatherings of their own.

In Brighton, the Green Party set out plans to target four seats at the next election – its existing seat of Brighton Pavilion, plus Bristol Central, Waveney Valley in East Anglia, and North Herefordshire – and said it would be open to a deal with Labour if needed after the election.

The small Reform Party, previously known as the Brexit Party, staged a conference in central London at which Nigel Farage attacked the Conservatives for copying his party’s rhetoric, but not its policies.

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