I’m just back from Labour party conference in Brighton and taking a breather before setting off for the Conservative conference in Manchester.
Two years ago attending the Labour conference on Brighton was like going to dinner at friends' house just after they have had a massive argument - simmering discontent and awkwardness. Corbyn's speech in 2015 was stilted and forgettable. Today nearly the entire hall worshipped at the feet of their leader. It was a triumphant, euphoric conference. His speech was confident and rapturously received. Those from the centre and right of the party stayed away or stayed silent. Corbyn and his team are in total control of the Labour party. That means they are now building on their 2017 election manifesto, starting to develop new policies that extend the Corbyn agenda.
The conference was imbued with a total confidence that Labour will win the next election. This in itself may reduce the likelihood of a Labour election win: there was no debate on how to extend the Labour vote in areas where they lost of failed to gain seats in June; and the very possibility of a Corbyn election victory may enforce discipline in the Conservative party and ensure there is no election until 2022. 2017 may yet prove to be the high water mark for Corbyn's Labour and the party may lose momentum (pun intended) if it has to wait five years for an election. But for now Corbyn is Britain's most populist leader. And whether or not he wins the next election, the policies set out this week will inform mainstream debate.
Here are my key take-outs for business, public sector and not-for-profit organisations:-
Brexit: Labour and Conservative convergence on transition and divergence on vision for future EU relationship
There was little difference between the Labour leadership this week and Theresa May last week on the question of Brexit transition (interim arrangements after March 2019 to enable a smoother move to a new relationship with the EU after that). Both leaders support a limited transition period during which we would remain in the Single Market and Customs Union.
Both leaders also continue to have "constructive ambiguity" in their position on what the future relationship with the EU will be but there are differences of principle in their approaches. In his speech outlining Labour’s position, Shadow Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: "Subject, of course to negotiations, remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour. We are also flexible as to whether the benefits of the single market are best retained by negotiating a new single market relationship or by working up from a bespoke trade deal."
Both parties are keeping their options relatively open at the moment. But Theresa May has proposed a more detached future relationship with the EU - outside the Single Market and Customs Union. Labour seem more comfortable with trading autonomy for market access to facilitate a 'softer’ Brexit.
These distinctions reflect the balancing acts both party leaders face on Brexit. The massively Europhile membership of the Labour Party currently trusts the euro-sceptic Corbyn to do the right thing whilst the EU fracture down the middle of the Conservative party means that Theresa May is probably the only person that both soft and hard Brexiteers can ultimately trust to pursue a middle course. Trust in both leaders may come under increased pressure as Brexit negotiations progress (or stall); for now the Prime Minister has the most fragile balancing act.
Public service reform
Various changes to the delivery of public services were outlined at the Labour conference, which local government and service providers should start thinking about. These include ending PFI ("where appropriate”), a new approach to regeneration projects (with new tests to ensure development is in interests of community and existing residents) and making public services more accountable to users. Little detail has been provided, so there are opportunities to shape the debate as well as to start factoring these type of policies into strategic planning
Business policies – building on the 2017 manifesto
We may well see regulators or government picking up John McDonnell's proposal to cap credit card repayments (applying existing pay day loan regulations, preventing interest being paid greater than the value of the loan). Corbyn kicked off his speech proposing mandatory pay audits in all firms , to tackle the gender pay gap: again an issue that other parties will pursue too. On tax, Labour did no more than restate the 2017 manifesto proposals - increasing corporation tax and tax on high earners. On private housing rental, Jeremy Corbyn built on the election manifesto to propose rent controls. Throughout the conference there was frequent mention of large corporations not paying their fair share of tax – that is a core part of the current Labour world view. We also heard significant emphasis on nationalisation of utilities - train operating companies, water and electricity. A new commitment in Corbyn's speech was to 'make business accountable' to citizens and their employees. No detail on this - but workers on boards, nationalisation of utilities and union rights are part of the approach.
State versus Corporate approach
More generally, what was notable was the focus on the role of the State and on curbing big business. The role of not-for-profit in delivering public services and strengthening communities was almost entirely absent in any of the fringe or conference debates I attended.
The 4th industrial revolution
This was a big theme at Labour conference. Many speakers and the Labour leadership identified the huge changes about to take place in the economy as artificial intelligence and automation mean robots replace many jobs. Whilst they identified the challenges, there was much less in the way of solutions. There were some thoughtful contributions in the margins but the shadow ministers tended to set out a high level binary choice between an automated future led by large corporates which would increase poverty and extend monopolies and a 'publicly managed' approach under Labour that would usher in a new balance between work and leisure. Beyond proposals for life-long learning to enable people to develop new skills, there was little detail on how Labour would approach this. What was missing was a more nuanced and inquisitive approach to the future of work and how we can ensure that automation does unleash the potential of people. This is an area that all political parties will be grappling with and one where there is an opportunity to help inform the debate and develop new thinking. At Grant Thornton we have been encouraging debate on the future of workand Matthew Taylor (a former adviser to Tony Blair) has produced a wide-ranging reportfor the government.
In summary: a confident Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is very much focusing on post-Brexit economic and social policies, looking to extend their populist 2017 manifesto and develop more radical policies for the next election. Whether or not they form a government in the future, they will be seeking to shift the mainstream debate, which will influence the future business environment.
After the ‘victory’ mood of the Labour conference, we can expect a more sombre and introspective conference next week for the party that did win the election. It will be interesting to see how much the new found confidence of Labour will stiffen Conservative unity in the face of Brexit divisions and whether we see post-Brexit Conservative policies shifting to the centre ground or creating more ‘clear blue water’.
a confident Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn is very much focusing on post-Brexit economic and social policies, looking to extend their populist 2017 manifesto and develop more radical policies for the next election. Whether or not they form a government in the future, they will be seeking to shift the mainstream debate, which will influence the future business environment