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 looking ahead to the conferences taking place in 2022?
When are the 2022 party conferences?
Liberal Democrat Party Conference – due to be held 17-20 September – has been cancelled
Labour Party Conference 25-28 September
Green Party Conference 30 September – 2 October
Reform UK Conference 2 October
Conservative Party Conference 2-5 October
Scottish National Party Conference 8-10 October
Plaid Cymru 21-22 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.
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 2021, party conferences (and this includes smaller gatherings throughout the year, not just the big autumn meet) raised £4,519,000 for the Conservatives (down from £5,379,000 in 2019). Labour’s accounts do not separate conference income from other commercial income, but the party raised £2,977,000 in 2021 (down significantly from £5,139,000 in 2019). This year will be the second since the outbreak of Covid-19 in which Conservative and Labour conferences will be held in person, and there will be some hope that revenue incomes will recover.
“We do not have exact numbers on what each party’s annual conference earns, though we know it is a lot.”
The Liberal Democrats have made clear that the cancellation of their conference will cost ‘hundreds of thousands’ of pounds.
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?
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.
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.
“”Leaders’ speeches can be seen to crystallise the relative strengths and weaknesses of party leaders.”
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 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?
Keir Starmer’s speech will be held on Tuesday 27 September (the penultimate day) of Labour Party conference at 2pm. While the Conservative Party have yet to release their conference schedule, the set-piece leader’s speech is normally held on the final day of Conservative Party Conference – which this year would be Wednesday 5 October.
“Economic questions are likely to dominate: how the cost of living crisis can be mitigated and managed, and the macroeconomic implications of a global energy crisis.”
Leaders’ speeches can be seen to crystallise the relative strengths and weaknesses of party leaders.
Take four 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.
What are likely to be the big issues at this year’s party conferences?
This year’s conferences are likely to be overshadowed by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and tributes from senior figures within both parties. Yet this is also a key moment in the political direction of both parties.
Economic questions are likely to dominate: how the cost of living crisis can be mitigated and managed, and the macroeconomic implications of a global energy crisis. The conference will, therefore, potentially put bones on what the policy implications will be of ‘Trussonomics’ and begin to shed light on how the Truss agenda will differ to that of the Johnson Government.
For Labour, there have been campaigns to debate and vote on Labour’s position on strikes and this internal tension could prove an on running debate. One live policy is proportional representation: in 2021 a motion in support of PR was supported by 80% of constituency delegates but blocked by the union vote, but since then two of the three largest unions have changed position to support electoral reform.
By Dr Alan Wager, Research Associate, UK in a Changing Europe.