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Two Conferences, a World of Difference

Guest writer Paul Spence compares the two political conferences of the past few weeks – and the contrast is stark.

For anyone even remotely interested in British politics, conference season is a particularly stimulating time. Conferences are tangible representations of the state of major parties. It thus shouldn’t be any surprise that the Labour and Conservative party conferences this year were worlds apart. One exuded the confidence of a party on the way up, expecting at least a general election win (if not an absolute landslide), while the other was overtaken with the grumblings of a party genuinely worried about its future.

Hope in Liverpool

One of the odder takeaways of those attending the 2022 Annual Labour Party Conference in Liverpool was the number of free drinks. This seemingly innocuous detail, however, reveals something deep about what’s happening in Labour party at the moment. People are starting to believe that the party might actually win an election. Businesses do too, which is why they were heavily present in Liverpool, particularly in comparison to previous years. And when there’s more money around from big businesses, this year including Amazon, a natural consequence is free alcohol.

One must never be complacent in politics, but if anyone has reason to be, it’s Keir Starmer. After 12 years of stagnation in the opposition and terrible election results in 2019, the party is now leading the conservatives in many polls by margins of 20-30%. The new government under Liz Truss is more unpopular than Boris Johnson’s was at its lowest. This meant a Labour conference dominated by excited discussions of government policy, ready for implementation. The leader’s speech, last year dominated by a section on the importance of winning power and a case against Boris Johnson, was this year replete with concrete policy proposals concerning everything from the environment to the economy.

The Labour party is in a good place at the moment. Comfortably ahead in the polls, notable commentators have noted a renewed confidence, crucial for any political party aspiring an election win. However, with potentially years left until a general election, it’s too early to say whether this optimism from members is justified or not.

A Difficult Conference for Liz Truss

Liz Truss has had a bad first month. This is no comment on her politics. Financial markets reacted extremely poorly to elements of what was dubbed the ‘mini-budget’, with the pound sinking to record lows. The Conservatives are now polling as low as they were before the 1997 Labour landslide. It would be a wonder if the party conference went well.

Indeed, while businesses were present in record numbers in Liverpool, a Conservative donor reported that the conference felt like the worst in decades. After three days in Birmingham, Liz Truss was forced to abandon the commitment to a cut in the top rate of tax, announced by Kwasi Kwarteng in the mini-budget. While this reassured the markets, it only fractured the Tories further, with the Home Secretary bandying around accusations of a “coup” by critics against the PM. More infighting followed over government plans on benefits, with even senior cabinet members pressuring Truss to act. Party grandee Michael Gove suggested that her fiscal reforms were guided by the ‘wrong values’.

Liz Truss now leads an extremely divided parliamentary party. It’s telling that Boris Johnson’s landslide victory may not guarantee her government free reign over policy. Rumours of a change of leader were circulating in Birmingham despite it being only a month since her ascension. It may be too early to guess the outcome of the next election, but if this conference shows anything, it will be an uphill battle for the Conservatives.

Paul Spence

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