With the SNP having concluded their conference, 2023’s party conference season has come and gone. We’re now back at our desks and weighing up what we’ve learnt, what worked well for the charities we work with and – most importantly – what this all means for campaigning charities in the run-up to the General Election and beyond.
To sum up this year’s conference season in a few words, our experience was:
It was incredibly hard to secure meetings with MPs at these conferences – harder than ever. But the charities we’ve been with made the most of ‘brush past’ opportunities. Young people involved with the Children’s Charity Coalition managed to have a few words and a selfie with the Prime Minister; Paul McGlinchey from the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce quizzed Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, and members of the Taskforce managed a quick hi and a picture with Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer. Eye-catching stalls remain a good way to draw politicians in to enable follow-ups with them later to cement relationships. St John Ambulance’s stall gave politicians and delegates important quick lessons on how to save a life and won second prize in the exhibitor’s competition.
Of course, no-one knows for sure – last week, a piece by the Institute for Government explored why. But it’s looking increasingly like the Conservatives will push the election to the end of 2024 or even January 2025, hoping to see a more positive economic forecast by then.
A brilliant ‘beyond the bubble’ fringe meeting by leading pollsters Ipsos gave the latest polling for the main parties, with a lot for all parties to chew on. Labour need a national swing of 12% to get a majority of just 1, so cannot take anything for granted. Pre-conference season, Ipsos put Labour on 44% and had the Conservatives 20 points behind, with the Liberal Democrats on 12%. Big swings to Labour in Thursday’s by-elections in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire have again confirmed that as of now, these leads are real. However, with an election not required until January 2025, Ipsos also explored what Labour have to do to maintain this lead and translate it into votes when it most matters, including fleshing out more of their policy agenda, and explored how any upticks in the economy or lingering factors might benefit the Tories.
Levelling up was mentioned at the Conservative Party Conference, but no longer takes centre stage. At Labour Conference, there was an increasing consensus that as a phrase, this is dead. Despite this, the front benches were very keen to make clear that the ambition and drive for tackling regional inequality – with further devolution as the key mechanism to make this a reality rather than a slogan – is very much alive. IPPR North were trying to make the new phrase ‘Regional Rebalancing’ happen, but even in their own fringe event, this didn’t seem to stick! Being in Liverpool, it was particularly good to hear from Cllr Liam Robinson, the Leader of Liverpool City Council, alongside Justin Madders MP, Shadow Minister for Business, Employment Rights and Levelling Up at a Centre for Cities and Living Wage Foundation fringe, where it was clear that some detailed thinking is going on in within the Labour team about how to develop thoughtful policies to tackle the issues for workers currently facing high levels of insecurity.
There were loads of fringe meetings on hot topics for voters such as housing and the future of the NHS. It was powerful and refreshing to hear directly from young people in many meetings we attended – and truly shocking to hear the latest mental health and wellbeing stats and fact that 29% of children are growing up in poverty in the UK. This is an unacceptable and unsustainable situation that any new Government must address.
We thought there was a definite buzz at the early education and childcare fringes, which were well attended. All seem to agree that radical action is needed to address the crises the sector faces – not least around the funding model, which at least one Labour front bencher agrees is “broken”.
However, the challenge for Labour is that the expansion of free hours the current Government has announced is popular among parents and voters, but as fringe speakers – from business, think tanks and the nursery sector – were at pains to make clear, without significant reform and measures to address workforce challenges, it simply will not be deliverable. It also remains to be seen if Bridget Philipson’s announcement in her conference speech that former chief inspector of schools and DfE permanent secretary Sir David Bell will lead a review of early years – including a look at removing restrictions on new local authority nursery provision – will be enough to assure providers that a Labour government would fully grasp this nettle.
With tight budgets and busy workloads, weighing up the costs versus the benefits of attending party conferences is important for charities considering doing this as part of your public affairs and campaigns approach.
Attending the conferences can be great for visibility but it’s expensive and, whilst you can plan carefully, there’s still a dollop of luck involved – when your event is scheduled, what else is on at the same time, who is available to speak on your panel, and who you might (or might not) bump into. Organising events with other like-minded organisations is a good way to reduce costs and get a good turnout, but if it’s all still too expensive for your charity there are a myriad of other ways to build support among politicians and further your goals outside of the Conference season.
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