It’s Brexit, stupid
Now that conference season is almost concluded (only the SNP’s Aberdeen gathering later this month), we wanted to take stock and reflect on the two main political party positioning. Quatro has attended Labour and Conservative conferences and, thanks to our new Scotland office, we will also be joining the SNP’s troops for our first ever Scottish conference.
The parties are getting ready for an election. Nobody knows exactly when it will happen, but it is close. Therefore, the main objective of these conferences was to galvanise the troops, get them ready, motivated for the battle ahead and tell the believers that they are on the right side, the winning side. Ultimately, this is what it was all for: the believers, who got their slogans, had their victories on the conference floor for Labour and their selfies with adored Boris for the Conservatives. The moderates in both parties arrived and remained sidelined: Labour maintained the neutral position on Brexit that is so treasured by Corbyn, while the Conservative faithful enthusiastically embraced the full blooded “do or die” approach to Brexit of their leader. For those concerned about the lack of direction for the future of the country, both parties had very little to offer. There are precious clues beyond posture and platitude for what might adorn those post-Brexit sunlit uplands.
According to our colleague Dan Hogan who attended the Labour Conference for Quatro, this year in Brighton, it was a combination of radical motions approved by the delegates and radical announcements from the frontbench. John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey set out a raft of measures between them: a 32-hour work week (with no reduction in pay), a new National Living Wage at £10 per hour in 2020, large state investment in new manufacturing ventures, and compulsory licensing for big pharma were all headline catching measures, greeted with excitement by a large proportion of members and concern by businesses. Beyond the headlines, however, there was very little substance to the policies and very little discussion about other ideas.
The Conservatives had their bi-annual appointment with Manchester, and it was soon clear, from the protests, that no amount of spending announcements for the North from the PM can make the party a very popular guest in the city. Ministers, backbenchers, think tanks, institutions, businesses, all went about their conference business as usual but there was no buzz or vibe. Sure, the mood among members was enthusiastic: “Get Brexit done” read the conference slogan and this is the deliverance they seek and that they believe Johnson will deliver. However, no one knows exactly how that will be done, given the chaotic last few weeks in Westminster. Having seen a fair number of Conservative conferences and having experienced the sense of purpose and excitement of 2014 and 2015, this was quite a flat, empty conference. Ministers and backbenchers alike made it clear that everything is subordinate to Brexit: We will invest in the NHS…after Brexit is done…We will invest in transport for the North…after Brexit is done. Sparse policy detail and lukewarm engagement in policy conversations suggest that the political will to act on many announcements is in short supply.
Where politicians retreat, however, there is room for businesses, think tanks and a raft of civic minded organisations to step in and lead a lively discussion on all subjects. There were many examples of this at the fringe events: WWF, businesses, charities, University of Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership all hosted excellent discussions full of ideas on how to tackle the issues facing people across the country and for the benefit of different regions. Panels on climate change, devolution, infrastructure, aging population have surely planted the seeds for future policy.
And this is probably the main lesson from these conferences: with politics stuck in a crisis, an election looming that will mostly be fought on Brexit, and debate on every day issues relegated to the background, there is ample room for civil society to step in and lead the way to finding solutions to the problems of today and tomorrow. At some point, there will be oxygen to invest in other policy domains, and our politicians will wake up from this trance; they will be looking around for policy ideas, examples of best practice and thought leadership that provide the answers to the big challenges of our time.
Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss this review. We’re working with a range of organisations on their advocacy approaches to local, regional and national politics and would love the opportunity to talk about your ideas.
Maria Bellissimo & Simon Collingwood
Quatro PR, 020 7566 7979