Reflections on the Labour Party conference: lively debate but no mention of skills

27 September 2018 -


CMI’s new head of policy shares his experiences of political conference season

Rob Wall 

As the early morning train pulls out of Lime Street station, and memories of warm white wine and stale sandwiches begin to fade, what are my major reflections of the Labour Party conference?

Firstly, I have to say that Liverpool put on a great show. The regeneration in and around the Royal Albert Docks is impressive and the grand Victorian buildings are outstanding. Add into the mix the friendliness of the people (although not necessarily of the delegates!!!) and three days of glorious sunshine and the scene was set for a great conference.

Secondly, it seems to me that this was a conference aimed squarely at those Labour members who have embraced the move to the left. There was no real compromise or concession to the centre-ground that I heard from any of the speakers on the main conference stage. The speeches from shadow Ministers were unashamedly and unambiguously socialist – indeed, as John McDonnell the shadow Chancellor said in his conference speech, “the future’s socialism”. We heard the shadow Chancellor embrace the principles of the old Clause IV (which pre-Blair committed the Labour Party to securing the common ownership of the means of production) as he set out his plans for increasing employee ownership of large companies by giving workers collective share-holdings and re-stating his absolute commitment to nationalising the water, energy and rail companies and the Royal Mail. All of which received standing ovations on the conference floor. If there was still any doubt, then let’s be clear: New Labour is officially dead, buried and the gravestone bulldozed over!

Thirdly, this didn’t feel like a conference for business – certainly compared to previous conferences I’ve attended. There were elements of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Shadow Business Secretary’s speech that will be welcomed by businesses – such as a review of business rates and more investment in the green economy – but I suspect the key takeaway from employers from this conference will be more regulation, more intervention and more costs. Talking to other business delegates, perhaps one of the biggest disappointments for employers was the lack of any policy announcement on skills in the speech given by Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary. Plenty of references to ending the Conservative’s free schools and academies programmes – which received three standing ovations from the conference floor – but only one mention of Further Education and no mention of apprenticeships whatsoever. In fact, she didn’t even use the word “skills” once!!

Fourthly, whatever may have been happening on the main stage, the debates in the Fringe events were certainly lively. The Fringe event run by Demos with Lord Baker, Lord Knight and David Laws – three former Education Ministers from three different political parties – stands out to me. There was surprising consensus around the idea of abolishing GCSEs and formally measuring education outcomes at 18.

And finally, there’s no avoiding Brexit. Despite all the above, this was a conference dominated by that single issue. From discussions in the Fringes, to the debate about a People’s Vote, from the Boris Johnson lookalike singing and dancing outside the venue, to the mass of people wearing “Love Corbyn Hate Brexit” T shirts, there was no escape. And I think I can guarantee that Brexit will continue to dominate during next week’s Conservative Party conference. 

For more insight on how that conference goes, watch this space…

Rob Wall is Head of Policy at Chartered Management Institute 

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