Serious but still lacking substance – Labour Party Conference 2017

September 29, 2017 at 11:57

Labour Party Conference 2017 has ended and Jeremy Corbyn’s speech has laid out his belief that the party should now be seen as a government in waiting.

The mood in the conference was flat at times, at least for those without passes in the conference hall, but unlike previous conferences there is a sense of seriousness and a sombre realisation that the party could be in government very shortly.

Banished, for the most part, were the debates from previous conferences that pitched the coming years as a “battle for the soul of the Labour Party”. The leadership and direction of travel appears to have been settled.

So what can charities learn from conference about influencing Labour ahead of the next election?

Values not numbers matter

The Labour Party is very much focused on policies which it believes reflect its values. The lesson from the last General Election that Labour has taken is that if it stays true to its core values of universalism, social justice and equality then it can win. Financial cost appears to be a secondary, though still important, issue.

Scrapping Tuition fees, taking PFIs in house, ending welfare cuts and investing in public services are more confidently expressed. Although Labour is still keen to show that it is fiscally responsible (John McDonnell’s constant references of the election ‘Grey Book’ of costings are an example), the party isn’t put off by big numbers. There is also a belief that the Party can shrug off newspaper criticism. The message is that the Party has won enough of a hearing from the public that significant spending proposals will not be dismissed immediately because of the deficit.

For charities, as with everything, there are risks and opportunities. On the plus side, many of Labour’s values such as social justice and equality, play right into the wheel arch of the sector. There are opportunities to build strong relationships with the party as senior figures appear keen to reach out to civil society. But on the minus side, there is as much concern with how services should be delivered as the quality of the services themselves. There is still a lingering suspicion that charities are privatisation by the back door and that the sector has been ‘co-opted’ into public service cuts. Charities will need to show that they are not self-interested but put their beneficiaries at the heart of everything they do.

Brexit has not been resolved in Labour

Looking ahead to the Conservative Party Conference, it is clear that Brexit is going to dominate. Brexit was a big theme at Labour’s conference too but in a quiet way, always bubbling under the surface of every debate. I attended fringes on both the Leave and Remain side, and it is clear that both sides see it as their job over the next few months to push their party into a harder, clearer stance. One academic said that Labour’s party policy on Brexit currently was a “wonder of triangulation” but it doesn’t seem likely that it can last.

Most discussions focused on attacking the government’s position (as you’d expect) but not very much on what Labour would do differently. This comes back to my first reflection about values. Just like the Conservatives, Brexit cuts across the values of the Labour Party. Concern about the marketisation of the state and big business are juxtaposed with a desire for open borders and supporting jobs.

Just like the government, Labour are desperate for information. Charities are likely to get a hearing on Brexit, but again, it is more than just the numbers. Politicians want to know what Brexit will do to wider society. The ‘softer’ impacts such as social cohesion and cross-border partnerships appear much more often in Labour’s thinking than in the Conservative Party. Young people are also a strong area of focus. This is not only because of Labour’s values but also an electoral calculation. Charities working in this space are likely to get a hearing from the Party.

Radical policies wanted

Finally, as with every opposition at this stage of the electoral cycle, there was a lack of policy substance in many debates. Apart from the big PFI announcement, the conference appeared quite policy light. A lot of what we said was just re-announcements of what was in the election manifesto – maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, but given the media attention, you’d expect a little bit more freshness.

Certainly there was nothing charity specific, and the brightest moment for our sector was Tom Watson’s reference to the value of social enterprise on the conference floor (hat tip to Social Enterprise UK for their great work in raising awareness!).

But the consistent message at all the fringes I attended was that Labour wanted to develop radical policies that were going to solve issues completely, not merely tinker at the edges. As one senior cabinet member said “people are sick to death of incrementalism”. The lesson from the election is that radical is popular.

Charities far too often try to thread the needle when it comes to policy. Trying to work out what politicians want to hear, and then trying to fit what is in the needs of beneficiaries within this window, rather than saying what they really think. My feeling from conference is that charities can afford to be bolder with Labour than in the past.

Will it solve the problem? How quickly can be in be done? And most importantly, is it the right thing to do? These are the questions Labour wants answered. The number crunching comes later.