Ben Blackburn of Freshwater’s Public Affairs team on the main talking points at this year’s Conservative and Labour conferences.
You only had to browse through the Conservative conference edition of ‘The House’ magazine to see that all things infrastructure, transport and ‘northern powerhouse’ were likely to be central themes of the party’s gathering in Manchester. More than one-third of all paid-for advertising had been taken out by infrastructure-related companies and campaigns, ranging from national strategic transport infrastructure to rail and ports operators.
On the ground, ‘powerhouse’ ministers from different departments were out in full force. Think tanks and special interest groups sprouted enough talking heads - discussing everything from city evolution and devolution, transport connectivity and infrastructure, building (everything), economic growth, rebalancing, and sustainability - to give the Hydra a run for its money.
While the cynical might say the focus on these powerhouse issues was convenient for a conference in the north of England, the fact that Labour’s conference in Brighton was similarly orientated speaks volumes about its salience throughout the political spectrum.
Sunny mood at the seaside
Indeed, transport, infrastructure and the powerhouse were rare examples of commonality between the two conferences. The Labour family’s mood at the seaside matched the sunny weather. For the first time in many years, the large and vocal trade union element were happy with the direction being taken by party leaders. TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes was jubilant when he addressed conference on Monday morning. And, while some party members were concerned by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, most supporters of rival candidates fell into line in the interests of unity. Meanwhile wool-suited consultants did most of the sweating as they ran the promenade from one engagement to the next.
The left-leaning persuasion of Corbyn et al - and the lack of certainty over many of their policy positions - meant lots of likely protestors were inside the hall rather than outside it. The main exception was the anti-HS2 lobby, which was out in serious force. The decision to target Brighton rather than Manchester might seem a strange one: Corbyn and his new shadow transport secretary Lilian Greenwood appear prepared to support the Phase One bill’s passage through parliament and will also be keen for the party’s northern heartlands to benefit from Phase Two. Perhaps this special interest group was hoping to find space and influence in Labour’s new policy-making regime which will facilitate rigorous discussion and encourage grassroots impulses to set the agenda. And, with any new regime comes uncertainty and a natural openness to change.
Back to the future?
In retrospect, anti-HS2 campaigners were best off staying away from Manchester. Such was the magnitude of anti-austerity protest, their voice would not even have been heard. While Sunday’s organised march, which represented the mainstream of opinion, progressed without major concern, its aftermath saw more marginal and aggressive voices come to the fore. According to some old hands, the atmosphere outside the secure zone harked back to the 1980s. Certainly it was intimidating, and not just for Tory members, with all and sundry being subjected to swine-themed chants and casual insults. Those sympathetic to the anti-austerity message will have been frustrated with the way some protestors behaved. In contrast, the mood inside the fortifications was calm and confident.
The ‘un-pause’ and political pragmatism
As far as transport, infrastructure and the powerhouse were concerned, any expected discord over the much-criticised pause to TransPennine and Midland Mainline rail electrification had been nipped in the bud when they were ‘un-paused’ a few days prior by the transport secretary.
The good news kept coming. The announcement of a (now officially launched) independent National Infrastructure Commission, bearing a striking resemblance to the body planned by Labour after Sir John Armitt’s review, was delivered by the chancellor in his conference address. To rub salt into the wounds, Mr Osborne revealed the Commission’s first chair would be leading Labour thinker Andrew Adonis. This appointment was also evidence of a chancellor trying to be seen as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue - an image which, if successfully pulled off, will be helpful his campaign to secure the top job in 2020.
Those working in transport and infrastructure should take their sectors’ current prominence on the political scene positively. Both main parties agree that these sectors can catalyse sustainable national economic growth. What is still needed, however, is more long-term certainty over how political ambition will be delivered on the ground.
Freshwater supports its clients at party conferences every year. If the 2016 season is part of your strategy, our consultants can build an engagement programme to help you meet your objectives. Call a member of the team on 0207 067 1595.