Making social science accessible

04 Oct 2023

Politics and Society

Every year, members of the UK’s political parties congregate in their thousands in early autumn at party conferences. They are a central part of the UK’s political calendar, when parliamentary activity is suspended and over which a great deal of effort is expended by our politicians and parties. But what is the purpose of these gatherings? What are the key differences between the Conservative and Labour conferences? And what can we expect from them this year? Alan Wager and Alex Walker explain.

When are the 2023 party conferences?

Liberal Democrat Party Conference – 23-26 September

Conservative Party Conference – 1-4 October

Green Party Conference – 6-8 October

Plaid Cymru – 6-7 October

Reform UK Conference – 7 October

Labour Party Conference – 8-11 October

Scottish National Party Conference – 15-17 October

Why do parties have conferences?

To influence the public

According to research from YouGov in 2018, only 3% of the public say they pay a lot of attention, and a further 19% pay a fair amount of attention, to what goes on in these conference centres across the UK. Yet they remain one of the few chances for each party – particularly the party who is in opposition at any time – to set out their strategic direction and receive significant coverage for policy pronouncements.

To boost party finances

Given that the UK’s political parties receive very little support from the public purse, an important role conferences play is in boosting the finances of political parties.

“We do not have exact numbers on what each party’s annual conference earns, though we know it is a lot.”

The Labour and Conservative conferences typically attract around 12,000 attendees each year. Parties receive income from attendees and from business and outside interests looking to influence them. Companies can pay thousands of pounds for everything from being allowed to drop leaflets in rooms in affiliated hotels where conference attendees are staying, through to stands to promote key messages, to organising or sponsoring events.  

We do not have exact numbers on what each party’s annual conference earns, though we know it is a lot. In 2022, party conferences (and this includes smaller gatherings throughout the year, not just the big autumn meet) raised £6,281,000 for the Conservatives (up from £4,519,000 in 2021).

Labour’s accounts do not separate conference income from other commercial income, but the party raised £4,149,000 in 2022 (up from £2,977,000 in 2021).

To enthuse activists and measure the party mood

Party conferences can be broadly seen as a gathering of the tribe. They are a chance for activists to reaffirm they are part of a bigger whole, to have the chance to engage in informal ways with party elites.

The conference fringes of party conferences – outside the main hall set-pieces that will be seen on the news – are where a lot of this activity takes place. The fringe is a smorgasbord of panels, debates and receptions not part of the official conference agenda, organised by various interest groups and publications.

Do Conservative and Labour party conferences make policy?

Conservative Party

One of the common jokes made about the Conservative Party is that it is an elected dictatorship: the party membership does not have any formal say over the policy direction of the party and operates, as Tim Bale describes, as ‘an essentially top-down organization’. Delegates have no formal votes, and the conference platform is reserved for big speeches and debates.

That said, Conservative conferences between 2016 and 2019 were important moments for Brexit. In 2016, Theresa May made clear the UK would leave the EU single market after Brexit. In 2018, Boris Johnson’s rapturously received speech on the fringes of conference – and members’ calls to ‘Chuck Chequers’ – signalled that any Brexit deal would be difficult to pass under the May administration.

Similarly, a chaotic and divided party conference last year hastened the end of Liz Truss’s short-lived premiership. Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng U-turned on part of the ill-fated mini-budget in the face of pressure at conference from former cabinet ministers and party MPs, as well as market turmoil.

Labour Party

The Labour Party’s annual conference was once described by Clement Attlee as the ‘Parliament of the Movement’. The party’s initial 1918 conference set out that the conference would determine party policy and strategy. Yet there was always a gap between the theory and the reality: the union bloc vote held up to 90% of votes at conference, and positions were often thrashed out behind closed doors between union and party leaders.

The position is now different. After many years of pressure, a series of reforms to voting in the 1990s reduced union power, and increased the power of delegates drawn from constituencies. Delegates to the conference are currently elected by a mix of affiliated trade unions (who still hold a guaranteed 50%), Constituency Labour Parties and socialist societies and have a vote over policy and organisational changes. That said, unions still largely vote as a bloc and after negotiations with the Labour leadership in advance of the conference and therefore, as Stephen Bush puts it, once the unions have made up their mind the only thing decided by the party’s lay membership is the scale of a vote’s result.

Central to this are not just who votes, but who decides the questions set. This is where Labour’s internal politics enters a morass of committees.

The Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) oversees the agenda for Party Conference. The CAC is comprised of 2 CLP reps who are elected by One Member One Vote, and six elected at each conference (with unions holding 50% of these votes, and delegates another 50%).

The CAC takes a steer on what policy debates to facilitate from what is submitted by Constituency Labour Parties as well as policy proposals as formulated by the party’s 200-strong National Policy Forum (NPF). The NPF includes representatives of CLPs and regions, Labour Councillors, affiliated trade unions and socialist societies, MPs and other groups within the Party.

The NPF is overseen by a Joint Policy Committee. This made up of members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) – the Labour Party’s ruling body, with elected representation across the Labour movement – and the leadership.

Ultimately, a great deal of power resides within bodies like the NEC – which makes it important for whoever is leading the Labour Party to have control over these key committees.

The Labour conferences in 2018 and 2019 were the scene of key battles over Brexit – as the Corbyn leadership wrestled with dilemmas over Brexit, managing a party membership characterised by the phrase ‘Love Corbyn, hate Brexit’ through the construction of a series of compromise positions that avoided the Labour Party being explicitly ‘pro Remain’.

When are the leaders’ speeches and why do they matter?

Rishi Sunak’s conference speech will be delivered on Wednesday 4 October – the last day of the Conservative Party conference.

Keir Starmer’s speech will be held on the afternoon of Tuesday 10 October.

“Leaders’ speeches can be seen to crystallise the relative strengths and weaknesses of party leaders.”

Leaders’ speeches can be seen to crystallise the relative strengths and weaknesses of party leaders.

Take these examples from the last decade of British politics. In 2014, a speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband in which he forgot a section on the economy was felt to underline his lack of economic credibility. In 2017, an accident-prone speech for May was part of an important weakening of her premiership. In 2021, a rumbustious but policy-light speech by Boris Johnson and a well-structured but workmanlike speech by Starmer were widely felt to epitomise the characters of the two main party leaders. In 2022, Liz Truss took aim at the ‘anti-growth coalition’ while declining to express any contrition for the ongoing economic turmoil unleashed by her mini-budget.

What are likely to be the big issues at this year’s party conferences?

Rishi Sunak will likely be hoping to continue his recent ‘reset’ – moving from presenting himself as the pragmatic problem solver to a Prime Minister on the front foot, taking decisions. But divisions over some of those decisions could come to the fore, including over changes to the government’s net zero policies and the scrapping of the Manchester leg of HS2, both of which have come under fire from Boris Johnson among others. Debates about when and how to cut taxes will no doubt also feature prominently – with another former PM, Liz Truss calling for the government to ‘axe the tax’.

Labour will likely be hoping to entrench the perception that it is a government in waiting by continuing to present itself as competent and sensible. But there will also be those looking for Starmer to go beyond this to address the common criticism that it’s not clear what he stands for. The party’s desire to appear economically competent by promising fiscal restraint has already meant watering down several of its earlier pledges. With a large poll lead, the party goes into the conference relatively united. But this tension will no doubt continue to play out at the conference – with divisions between those who want Starmer to be bolder versus those who see economic discipline as the priority.

By Dr Alan Wager, former Research Associate, and Alex Walker, Research & Communications Officer, UK in a Changing Europe.

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