Friday, October 18, 2019

What we learnt from the 2019 Party Conference Season

Kurt Hopkins, BESA PR & Public Affairs Executive

BESA was pleased to represent members for another year at the two main political party conferences in Brighton and Manchester. The political landscape has radically altered and the fortunes of both parties appear to have reversed since 2018. We saw high drama and big pledges as the Government and Opposition prepared for the final showdown over Brexit and drew up the battle lines for an imminent General Election.

The consensus from everyone attending was that the 2019 Labour and Conservative Conferences were both unusual compared to past years. But in these extraordinary times, who would be surprised by that? Far fewer Labour MPs attended Conference compared to the past, highlighting the widening divisions between large parts of the parliamentary party and the party’s more radical activist base. The Labour conference was interrupted midway by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the prorogation of the Parliament, which saw a sudden mass exodus of politicians, staffers and journalists on the trains back to Westminster as Parliament was recalled. Likewise, the un-prorogued Parliament voted against holding a recess while the Conservative Conference was on which made it harder to engage with some Government MPs and Ministers as parliamentary business continued.

Unfortunately for our sector, there has been little progress on our issues. That being said, the fringe events at both Conferences demonstrated significant political interest in issues relevant to the construction industry and improving the built environment – giving reason to hope some positive outcomes can be achieved when (and if) this present period of madness settles down. On retentions, the proroguing of Parliament means the Aldous Bill has lapsed. Peter Aldous has kindly offered to try to reintroduce the Bill in the new session and we will know the outcome of the ballot to see which MPs get a priority slot for private members’ business in late October. However, this current legislative session may be one of the shortest in history so BESA is developing a list of policy priorities for our sector that we will be asking the major parties to adopt in their forthcoming election manifestos.



Party Summary

The Labour Conference in Brighton was a stark contrast to last year. A year ago, Labour had consistently strong and competitive polling ranging between 35-40%. Labour’s confusing Brexit position has caused its support to collapse in 2019 with polling now levelling off around 25%. If the current trend were replicated at the ballot box, it would produce Labour’s worst electoral performance in a century.

The ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’ chant fell a bit flat this year as Brexit confusion and the mishandling of anti-Semitism allegations within the party have taken a severe toll on Corbyn’s personal brand. According to one poll on the eve of Conference, Corbyn is now the least popular Opposition Leader in recorded polling – even Michael Foot who led Labour to its catastrophic 1983 defeat had better numbers.

Despite the sobering polling, Labour missed the opportunity to make Conference a pre-election display of unity as damaging internal conflicts played out publicly. The most prominent example was the far-left’s botched attempt to remove the party’s pro-Remain and moderate Deputy Leader Tom Watson by abolishing his position. The colourful resignation letter of Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s chief policy adviser and author of the 2017 Manifesto caused further distraction.

On Brexit, Conference delegates narrowly rejected a motion for Labour to back Remain in a second referendum, rather than Jeremy Corbyn’s more neutral, compromise position. Labour clearly does not want to fight a Brexit election and announced new big-ticket items to its policy platform. These included pledges to nationalise private schools; abolish the education regulator Ofsted; establish a National Care Service; end drug prescription fees in England; invest in a national network for electrical vehicle charging points; and commit to bringing forward the net zero carbon target date from 2050 to 2030.

Labour also announced some of the most radical changes to the UK’s industrial relations system in decades, which would have serious implications for BESA members and other employers. Some of these included committing to a four day (32 hour) work week within 10 years with no loss of pay; a return to sectoral collective bargaining; and new initiatives to boost private sector union membership; less restrictive workplace right of entry laws for unions; opting-out of the European Working Time Directive; and banning zero hours contracts.


BESA Representation

At Brighton BESA attended many fringe events that provided good opportunities to raise our sector’s concerns with MPs and relevant stakeholders. Some highlights include:

  • Sought stronger Labour election commitment on retentions with the Shadow BEIS team and have follow-up meetings arranged with Shadow Small Business Minister, Bill Esterson MP.
  • Raised our national fire safety campaign at the Fire Brigades Union’s ‘Grenfell Never Again’ event.
  • Used a Chartered Institute of Building event to secure cross-promotion opportunities for the BESA & ECA-run Payment & Mental Health in Construction Survey and to contribute to CIOB industry mental health research.
  • Had discussion with Anna McMorrin MP on F-Gas issues and the environment. She expressed an interest to do a private members bill, which BESA will continue a dialogue on.
  • Attended several events to hear from Shadow Secretary of State for Labour, Laura Pidcock MP, Unite the Union, and the Institute of Employment Rights – the think tank that has helped design their industrial relations policies, to learn more about how these proposals might impact BESA members.



Party Summary

In Manchester, the mood was far more optimistic. On the surface at least, the Conservatives have transitioned from a house divided by three years of Brexit chaos largely of their own making, to a re-energised party whose membership appear to have rallied around Boris Johnson. Tory polling plummeted after the EU agreed to delay the Brexit date from March to October – from around 40% to 25% by June. Their single digit performance at the May European elections upgraded their plight from disaster to existential crisis.

Boris’ backers will feel vindicated that they have (for now) reversed the haemorrhaging of support to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Since the change in PM, support has recovered significantly to the mid-30s but remains lower than 2018. Last year the consensus was that the Conservatives were too cautious to call an early election. The Tories spent the weeks before the 2019 Conference unsuccessfully trying to goad the Opposition into granting them one.

The Government remains in a precarious position and has lost its parliamentary majority. The Tory strategy is to engineer a ‘People vs Parliament’ election by drumming up anger at ‘elites’ trying to frustrate Brexit, be it Labour, Parliament or the judiciary and taking a much harder line on Brexit than Theresa May. The blue banners in Manchester read ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the Government will want to avoid further extensions beyond 31 October for fear of Farage outflanking them again on the right.

In an attempt to appeal to voters who care more about domestic bread and butter issues than Brexit, the Conservatives under Boris have reversed their past-decade mantra of spending cuts and austerity with promises of both tax cuts and big spending on policing, schools and hospitals. To ‘park their tanks on Labour’s lawn’ the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced at Conference a pledge to raise the minimum wage to £10.50 by 2024 for anyone aged 21 or over; and extend the National Living Wage rate to anyone over 21 (currently for those aged 25).

There were also significant policies announcements designed to boost the Government’s green credentials including bringing forward the ban on central heating systems based on fossil fuels from newly-built homes from 2025 to next year; planting one million trees by 2024; creating three new forests in Northumberland; £200 million for nuclear fusion research; £1 billion to support electric car production; and a raft of energy efficiency schemes for homes.


BESA Representation

In Manchester BESA attended numerous fringe events, many of which had an encouraging focus on SMEs. BESA and SEC Group teamed up to get in the ears of as many stakeholders as possible. Some highlights include:

  • BESA had hoped to question Small Business Minister, Kelly Tolhurst MP at a Center for Policy Studies fringe event entitled ‘Are the Conservatives doing enough for small business?’ about what further plans the Government had planned to help construction SMEs about retentions. Unfortunately, the Minister could not attend due to Westminster business but did speak with Conservative Peer, Baroness Neville-Rolfe who undertook to raise it with the Minister. The panellist from the Federation of Small Businesses said the Minister recently told him the Government might soon announce some more positive initiatives in this space – so BESA is seeking clarification on what that might be.
  • BESA and SEC Group managed to corner Construction Minister Nadhim Zahawi MP in a hallway. Whether he wanted to out not – we made sure he heard our industry needed his help on retentions!
  • In the QandA at the ConservativeHome Business Conversation event, the new BEIS Secretary of State, Rt. Hon. Andrea Leadsom MP, was asked what more the Government would do on late payment. She answered that resolving the problem of late payment for SMEs would be a top priority and noted her earlier involvement in advocating for the Prompt Payment Code. While this is a positive sign, she did not elaborate on what form these proposals for change might take. BESA going forward will continue engaging with these BEIS ministers with the aim of nudging them to adopt the Aldous Bill as Government policy.


In Conclusion

With the 2019 Conferences of the two main parties over, we learnt that both sides are showing positive interest in many of the issues important to our sector, particularly around reforming late payment to SMEs, fire safety, improving the built environment and achieving net zero carbon emissions. The problem still lies in the lack of political bandwidth available to deal with issues as the daily dramas of Brexit and pre-election war-gaming take precedent. Going forward, BESA will continue engaging with both sides of politics to keep our issues on the agenda and is developing our priorities in preparation for the expected, forthcoming election.

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