Normally party conference season provides a clear platform for political parties to set out eye-catching new policy proposals, with the hope of grabbing headlines and enthusing their party faithful.

This year, however, all parties have struggled to get their policy announcements heard above the general din of political crises and Brexit-related news.

Locality’s policy team attended both Labour and Conservative Party conferences this year. We went to fringe events, listened to speeches and panels, and joined policy discussions with MPs and local leaders.
We have been finding out what are the key issues and policy ideas that are driving agendas within the parties – particularly around civil society, communities and local government policy.

Labour Party Conference

The Labour Party recently outlined their approach for civil society in the short but helpful paper “From Paternalism to Participation”. This included proposals of support for community anchor organisations and a new Community Innovation Fund to support local places and activities. As yet there hasn’t been much more detailed substance on these proposals. We recently met with Labour’s Shadow Civil Society Minister, Vicky Foxcroft, to discuss these ideas and how they will be developed.

Key policy ideas in fringe events

At Conference, there was energy in policy debates centred around dispersing power and strengthening community control. Jim McMahon, Labour’s Shadow Local Government minister, also trailed upcoming new announcements from Labour on localism. We will be engaging with them as we share our recommendations from our recently published report on our Localism Commission research.

Another recent paper from the Labour Party which had air-time at conference was Labour’s plan for “Democratising Local Public Services”. This paper outlines their plans to make ‘in-sourcing the new normal’. It commits to reversing the ‘open public services’ agenda that has promoted mixed-markets for over a decade.

There has been some concern that this emphasis on insourcing will also mark a resistance to VCSE partnerships in public services – but this agenda appears far more about taking aim at privatisation. Our Keep it Local network has been working with councils from across the political spectrum who also want to turn the tide on mega outsourcing contracts. Local practice shows how strengthening partnership and recognising the distinctive role of community organisations is an essential part of this.

At an NCVO roundtable at the conference, we also heard from local leaders who are putting community power at the heart of their local approach to partnership and public services – from Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, and Darren Rodwell, leader at London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

There is also a lot of commitment currently within the Labour Party for Community Wealth Building – the reorganisation of local economies to build greater levels of economic and social justice locally. The role of the community sector in commissioning and procurement, as well as of community ownership of land and assets, are central to this movement. You can read more in this Keep it Local article for Locality from CLES (Centre for Local Economic Strategies).

Other key announcements

Other key policy announcements at Labour Party Conference were:

  • A four-day working week, increase in the Living Wage to £10 per/hour and a ban on zero hours contracts.
  • A National Care Service – including free daily help and personal care, and better training for carers.
  • Green Industrial Revolution policies – including new windfarms (under majority public ownership) and investment in electric cars.
  • Scrapping Universal Credit and investment in the Sure Start programme.

Conservative Party Conference

There is always an extent to which political conferences exist in a bubble. But there was a particular feeling of unreality in Manchester Convention Centre for Conservative Party Conference this year.

Partly this could be put down to the government’s failed prorogation attempt and lack of certainty whether there would be any conference to go to at all. But it was also down to a Conservative core message – “get Brexit done” – that was simply not prepared to engage with the significant practical hurdles to achieving that in the allotted timeframe, nor the very live existential challenges currently facing the government.

A new Devolution White Paper

This made the main conference floor something of a substance free zone. Ongoing political instability left little scope for major policy announcements, so most speeches relied on repeating the Brexit mantra and getting members fired up with Labour bashing.

Perhaps most interesting from a Locality perspective was the Chancellor’s announcement of a devolution white paper. As our Commission on the Future of Localism outlined, the devolution agenda has stalled and what’s happened so far hasn’t gone far enough in shifting power meaningfully towards neighbourhoods. So it’s good to see some political impetus re-emerge, with the government promising to set out how further powers and funding would be devolved across England.

However, the risks of repeating the mistakes of George Osborne’s northern powerhouse agenda are clear and present. Sajid Javid makes the case for devolution very much in terms of driving growth and building physical infrastructure. Yet as our Localism Commission has said, making this rather than neighbourhoods and communities the focus of the devolution agenda “risks entrenching the disconnection and lack of accountability felt throughout the rest of the political system”.

However, more promising was Boris Johnson’s first speech as PM – delivered in Manchester a month before the Conference. Here he stated “too many places .. don’t feel they are getting benefits from the growth we are seeing elsewhere in the UK economy … So we are going to put proper money into the places that need it.”

He made clear this didn’t just mean more cash for transport and broadband but also “vital social and cultural infrastructure, from libraries and art centres to parks and youth services: the institutions that bring communities together, and give places new energy and new life”. And it will also entail giving “greater powers to council leaders and to communities”.

Key policy ideas at fringe events

This direction of travel was very much reflected in the fringe programme at Conference, with lots of panel debates focused on towns, localism and devolution. There is clear interest in the issue of power and how it can be exercised at a more local level. What isn’t clear is a coherent sense of what to do about it or why. For some it’s about supporting small local businesses. For others it’s about giving local authorities more power. For others it’s nakedly political, with the Conservative electoral strategy reportedly predicated on winning substantial gains in the towns of the midlands and the north.

So from the perspective of Locality’s policy agenda, it isn’t the time for wild celebration that we have a government who is lock step behind our key priorities. However, there is an open window of opportunity. The agenda that is emerging has localism as a political and policy focus. But there is not yet a clear practical programme for how to make it a reality.

If and when politics brings enough clarity for serious policy agendas to be shaped, we will be working with ministers, MPs and advisers to help them put flesh on the bones of this emerging programme.