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Notes on party conferences and a world transformed

As party conference season reaches its middle point for 2017, Mark Leach reflects on Labour's gathering in Brighton and looks ahead to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
This article is more than 6 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Party conference season has now reached its middle point. The Lib Dem Conference in Bournemouth has faded from memory (I’ve still not found anyone from the sector that will admit to having gone). The SNP meet in a few weeks, but for now, we’ve wrapped up Labour in Brighton, with just enough time to do the washing before the Conservatives meet in Manchester at the weekend.

As a party conference veteran, I have seen Labour’s conference through different political eras and through different eyes: student activist, HE sector lobbyist, chief of staff to a shadow minister, and whatever you might describe my role now: amateur food critic, (nonpartisan) HE pundit for hire, available to chair your fringe meeting and talk about higher education policy all night in exchange for beer.

As a political nerd, I can’t help but enjoy party conference season and the way it brings together the nation’s finest wonks. And they do flock. I had to muster up some courage to speak to IFS’s Paul Johnson who I spied casually minding his own business on a train from London to Brighton. Even for one of our national wonk treasures, it’s clearly still strange to be approached by fans.

Academics are also never under-represented at party conferences. Academic experts from every issue imaginable pleasingly adorn the fringe circuit to discuss how to build better cities, transport systems or better healthcare. And the scholars of politics are there in force to explain why variously, Jeremy Corbyn is set to be prime minister on the back of disaffected youth, or why the Conservatives still can’t be beaten.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

I want to know what love is

The HE sector’s official representatives seem to fall in and out of love with party conferences. Several years ago I was involved with an initiative to bring all the sector bodies together under one banner and cooperate on events to avoid scheduling clashes and present a united front to politicians. The sector has famously never been very good at cartels though, and with one of the more belligerent mission groups refusing to take part, the idea fell at the first hurdle.

Ever since, the sector’s biggest representative body, Universities UK, has avoided the official (and very expensive) event organising scene, in favour of private dinners and ensuring they have key players at the right events. Find their public affairs officers sitting front row at fringes ready for maximum eye-rolling, and vice chancellors dining with ministers, shadow ministers and party officials pressing messages of stability in policymaking and the importance of universities to our economy and society.

Those same messages can be handed right back to them with both barrels though, as last year’s Conservative Party Conference showed when one minister well known to the sector told an assembled senior group over dinner that nothing was changing on international student migration policy, only for the Home Secretary to announce a chilling crackdown on stage the following morning.

You pays your money and you takes your choice….

The World Transformed

At Labour, the real show was at Momentum’s The World Transformed counter-conference down the road, but the whole week had more of a ‘festival’ vibe than your typical conference. This was a week-long party to reward activists with nourishing political discussion and an opportunity to celebrate Labour’s recent electoral successes, among comrades. It did make for a more vibrant discussion at fringe events, with less message control and a wider group to input thinking. When a party looks as if it is heading into government, or already is, these conferences snuff out the voice of its own activists in an often-doomed attempt to control the message – usually some dull variation of ‘hail to the chief’.

At Labour this year, besuited sector lobbyists could be spotted a mile off, and thus avoided, by shadow ministers who didn’t have the answers that they knew the suits were looking for. If you did manage to corner a shadow minister or someone else that looks like they should know something about Labour HE policy, you could bet that they will have had plenty to say across the broad sweep of education and skills through history. The words will flow, that is until you get bored of waiting for something more substantial, like an actual policy. The next beer can’t be far off in any case….  

But the general positivity was infectious and very visible – even Labour moderates, who spent the last two years fighting the Corbyn project, seemed upbeat at this conference – many buoyed by enhanced majorities. “What’s the point?!” one notable critic of the Corbyn platform said to me cheerfully, when asked if they were going to challenge their leader’s policy of abolishing tuition fees.

What’s the point indeed? No one goes to Glastonbury to argue with Michael Eavis about his choice of headliner.

That’s just not how festivals work.

Expect this state to last several years or at least until another election comes into view. The festival will have to come to an end at some point if Labour is going to present itself as a serious government in waiting. Earlier this week we published a list of the outstanding questions about the party’s HE policy that Labour simply must answer relating to HE policy before an election. Or at least they probably should. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This shit just got real

At Conservatives next week, things are likely to feel a bit more serious. The party has its hands on the levers of the economy and a Brexit process to continue to fluff. Following months of pressure, attention is now rapidly turning to policy on student finance. Will the government use the opportunity of the conference to announce or trail real changes to the system? Make graduate repayment fairer perhaps, something on maintenance…or whisper it…movement on fees (and not in the direction the sector is hoping for)?

It’s looking increasingly likely by the day and so you can be sure that the sector will be there in force. Theresa May famously told the 2015 Conservative Party Conference that she “doesn’t care what the university lobbyists say”. This wasn’t news to the university lobbyists who by then had long been used to being ignored by Theresa May.

But two years is a long time in politics, and the eternal May hegemony as some had predicted (including on these pages), is looking somewhat shaky. The conference will bring together all the various and growing factions of power in the government and its wider party, and so the opportunities to influence have only multiplied exponentially in the wake of the prime minister’s weakness. And at least next week, the sector will blend in better with the sea of suits.

I’m off to do the ironing…

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