Party time: the takeaway from this year’s political party conferences

Over the last few weeks, both Labour and the Conservatives staged their party conferences. Typically seen as a chance to garner support, solidify party positions and generate political enthusiasm, this year’s conferences – with a general election looming – were imbued more than ever with tension and expectation, and became a kind of testing-ground for the two Prime-Minster-hopefuls. In their wake, there appear some big questions: can Keir win over those who are disaffected by the Conservatives, in order to bring his party to victory; and can Rishi do enough to hold on – to market himself successfully as ‘the change candidate’

In Liverpool, from 8th – 11th October, Keir Starmer and his party presided over one of the busiest conferences that Labour has seen in recent years. And, in a similar departure from more recent Labour “norms”, there was a marked absence of infighting and factionalism over the four days, with reports instead of Labour MPs being on a ‘tight leash’. In fact, a general desire to appear professional, responsible and fiscally competent – as accusations of the opposite are never very far away – became overriding themes of the conference. In his speech, as well as general commentary on the alleged failure of the Conservatives’ last 13 years in power, Starmer focused on ending non-dom status and the creation of more jobs. But, he also talked about fostering a ‘genuine partnership’ between the private and public sectors: an attempt, perhaps, to prove that financially-savvy Labour can also support business and enterprise – potentially trying to trump the Conservatives at their own game?

Whilst this may not be enough for some, who claim that Labour are doing ‘the bare minimum’, the speech still served to present Labour as pragmatic, and serious about the future: an illusion that wasn’t even marred by a glittery interruption from a People Demand Democracy protestor – since named as Yaz Ashmawi – who stormed onto stage at the start of Starmer’s speech, dousing him in glitter. The Labour leader appeared to be unaffected, and instead harnessed the incident as an opportunity to demonstrate the supposed evolution of the party, citing the dichotomy between ‘protest or power’. The Labour party have even started selling t-shirts with the slogan ‘Sparkle with Starmer’, prompting some interesting thoughts. If chaos, dissent, and dissatisfaction can be exploited for political gain at a conference, can Labour do the same, on a much wider scale when election time comes?

The Conservative party conference – held from 1st – 4th October in Manchester – seemed, by noticeable comparison, to be a much duller affair, generating little additional enthusiasm in a numerical sense. Polls at the time suggested that, whilst Labour had gained three points over the weekend of 8th October, at 42%, the Conservatives remained at a steady 29%; considering the entire point of a conference is to create momentum and energy, this stasis does not necessarily bode well for the Tories’ electoral hopes. Competing perhaps with the legacy of Boris Johnson – an ultimate veteran of personality politics with many memorable party conference moments – it felt as though Sunak was having to fight hard to carve out his niche, and define exactly what it was he would offer. Rishi’s wife’s assurances of his ‘fun’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘compassionate’ nature felt slightly desperate, almost admitting that these are qualities he is perceived to lack. And the very notion of defining himself as the ‘change candidate’ could be seen as an oxymoron. After 13 years of Conservative leadership, including nearly a year under his own, how startlingly different will Rishi have to become in order for the electorate to notice a change? Many of his flagship main policies, like stopping the boats, feel like a continuation of a long-running theme, and it has been suggested that Sunak did not do nearly enough to address the issues that affect many people on a day-to-day basis, like the cost of living crisis. 

The idea of one Conservative leader being a “change” from another is not new, however; it worked for John Major in 1992, who marketed himself as sufficiently different to Margaret Thatcher, and against the odds, won a dramatic victory, with a majority of 21. With upcoming by-elections in Tamworth and Bedfordshire to look forward to this week – and Labour not particularly confident to win either, despite their recent Rutherglen victory – there is still time for the Conservatives to alter the narrative, and demonstrate the ‘change’ that they hope to engender.


Image: Joanna Zdunczyk via Pexels


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