What does the political party conference season mean for business?

By Matt Jamieson on Monday, 26 October 2015

“Stultifyingly boring” – these were the choice words of Labour’s new shadow chancellor – John McDonnell – when trailing his maiden speech on the economy, even though said speech was delivered at the most anticipated party conference season since 2010.

Typically, party conference season serves as an opportunity for the mainstream parties to reinforce their core positions and underline policy ambitions for the year ahead, and is notable for its blandness. But this year was dramatically different, in that there was relatively little policy outlined, but a more pronounced focus on ideological shifts. Indeed, 2015’s party conference season will be remembered for the presentation of two diametrically conflicting ideas: the “New Politics” of Jeremy Corbyn’s new (read: old) Labour; vs the self-proclaimed “one true party of Labour”, which just so happens to be – wait for it – the Conservatives.

While Jeremy Corbyn’s inaugural address as leader received the lion’s share of attention, there was surprise in how little tangible policy was outlined within his speech. Instead, Corbyn opted to focus on ideology and explaining his Labour party’s raison d'être. The gap this left is already being felt in the level of uncertainty as to “how” Labour will deliver as the party of opposition, particularly in a context of Corbyn needing to appease some 200+ Labour MPs who didn’t want him as leader.

By way of contrast, the Conservative conference was an upbeat, almost celebratory affair, taking full advantage of Labour’s precarious ideological position, most notable when Cameron branded Corbyn “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising and Britain-hating”. The Prime Minister’s speech was notable for its rhetoric, hammering home the point that this was to be a “defining decade” for the UK. But again, it was light on practical policy, which instead was left to other members of his cabinet. If anything, the language used signalled Cameron’s intention to appropriate the centre-ground of British politics, led by an articulation of the values of compassionate Conservatism. It was therefore unfortunate that this was undermined by some of the most senior cabinet members whose eyes were firmly fixed on their respective potential leadership bids.

So why does all this matter to business? With Labour struggling to find party consensus on some of the most basic fundamental policies, and the Conservatives effectively using the platform to begin a 5-year interview process, it’d be tempting to describe this party conference season as one that can be quickly forgotten. But, when we consider some of the policy debates in the last weeks, we can see already that the themes that dominated conference season will now dominate the Government’s legislative agenda. Immigration, Brexit, local government business rates, corporate tax evasion, financial transaction tax, people’s quantitative easing, reform of the Bank of England, inheritance tax grading, pension changes will remain firmly in the foreground for the foreseeable, with implications for the economy as a whole and the financial services sector in particular. What remains uncertain is how far ideas will be able to be put into practice, and, crucially, how the electorate will respond.

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