England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Party Conferences – what have we learnt?


That’s the question that Jonathan Carr-West reflects on as he looks back over party conference season.

As I’ve remarked elsewhere, September can be a long month for those of us who traipse around the country dutifully following each of the political tribes to their conference gatherings.

But after all the speeches, fringes, late nights and curling sandwiches, it’s finally over.

So as we all trudge home for a lie down and an alka seltzer, what have we learned?

 The Liberal Democrats – out but not down

It was much remarked on in the press but the Liberal Democrats were remarkably cheerful for a party that suffered near electoral wipe out in May.

In part this is because of the rejuvenating effect of 20,000 new members, many of whom seemed to be present at conference, lending it a slightly more festive air than might have been expected.

But there was also a sense that their political relevance had been sharpened recently. With Labour perceived to be veering to the left under Corbyn and the Conservatives moving to the right of the Coalition government on key issues such as welfare and immigration, there was a feeling that a large liberal shaped hole was opening in the centre of British politics.

What does that translate to for local government? I didn’t pick up on any radical new thinking, more a sense that keeping going locally, running good councils, and picking good local battles for what remains a substantial and committed councillor base would pay dividends in the end.

Labour – A tale of two cities

Labour conference felt in some ways like a slightly out of body experience. The party’s leadership contest and the surging membership associated with it is clearly setting a great deal of the political weather, but the type of people who paid hundreds of pounds months ago to come to party conference do not necessarily reflect core Corbyn support.

This led to a slightly odd sense that with the exception of McDonnell’s and Corbyn’s keynotes the action was all happening off stage somewhere.

For local government there was a combination of confidence and anxiety. Confidence that Labour councils are some of the best in the country, driving devolution forward, pioneering new forms of civic investment, smarter commissioning and community engagement. Anxiety that a tension would emerge between their programmatic focus on running good councils and pressure from the leadership and from new party members to lead the fight against austerity.

Conservatives – turning up the devo dial

Despite their general election victory and what they see as the self-destruction of their main rivals, the Conservatives managed, more or less, to keep the lid on any triumphalism.

They were brimming with confidence, however, and trying to cover a wide political spectrum. Cameron made an explicit grab for centrist voters, while Theresa May’s rhetoric on immigration and tax credit reform were both pitched to the right.

The biggest rabbit from a hat, however, was the Chancellor’s surprise localisation of business rates. Given that Treasury officials were until recently briefing that this was completely out of the question, it represents a huge swing towards localism.

Osborne deserves credit in as far as he seems ever more serious about devolution. Many people, myself included, have been arguing that devolution is not real without fiscal devolution. Well, here it is.

Questions remain of course. Does he really mean that each council will keep the entirety of its business rates? Will tariffs and top ups be phased out over time? Over what time? What sort of redistribution will remain?

It seems inevitable that even with the ability to drop rates to attract business some (many?) councils will be unable to drive sufficient growth to keep track of rising costs in adult social care. What happens then? Do we let them go bust like so many mini-Detroits? Or is there a safety net? We will see.

Inevitably the conferences of opposition parties tend to be more internally focused conversations whereas the party of government can make substantive policy announcements, but, as I blogged only recently, rarely does local government feature much. Not so this year

Osborne’s plans will be great news for some councils, for others they will come with risk. For everyone they will change the game completely.

That’s quite a conference season.

Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of LGiU.

See all of LGiU’s party conference analysis on our project page.