Party Conference 2022: What next for local leaders?

Tom Rathborn Tom Rathborn

As party conferences come to an end, we reflect on learnings from the Labour and Conservative events and what they mean for local leaders moving forward.  

They say a week is a long time in politics; never has that felt like such an understatement.  

Liz Truss’ premiership has not had the easiest start, and as her party gathered in Birmingham, all eyes were on the PM to see whether she could calm the waters.  

Party conferences can be strange affairs. As congregations of the faithful (dissenters normally avoid), they can mislead outsiders as to the real standing and challenges faced by each party. Looking beyond the standing ovations and camera smiles, the divisions in the Conservative party are clear, with senior cabinet members openly contradicting the new Prime Minister and Chancellor.  

The new leadership have staked everything on growing the UK economy. The new policy is to drive growth by reducing the tax burden and creating ‘investment zones’ in the hope that these will stimulate private sector investment. This is not just an economic gamble, but a political one as well.  

The 70+ seat majority currently enjoyed by the Conservative party is not a stable one and the PM may find herself unable to deliver policy if enough MPs disagree. We have already seen a significant number of her own MPs say they will not vote for announced measures, and this presents a real challenge. Winning over these MPs will be key to her survival and, if quick progress isn’t made, we can expect a febrile environment to boil over with the potential for further leadership changes.  

In stark contrast, the Labour party conference was one, at least on the surface, of unity and clarity of thought. Buoyed by recent events, the narrative focused on a growing belief across the party that they can win the next general election.  

Kier Starmer appears in control of the party – no longer hiding from the achievements of the Blair government, but openly celebrating them. This represents a significant shift, with the party moving to the centre ground of British politics – a space recently vacated following the removal of Boris Johnson.  

Levelling-up is central to their plans for a Labour government - but it will be green. Net zero and the push for sustainability will drive the agenda, with investment in new energy production, skills and training, and wider infrastructure, including retrofitting.  

Our events at Party Conference

In partnership with the Institute for Government we ran events at Labour and Conservative Party Conference.


Key takeaways for public sector leaders 

Given what we learned, what do local leaders need to consider over the next 18 months?  

Expect further volatility - With the next election rapidly approaching, the Government has little time to turn current polling around. Expect further policy announcements and measures aimed at winning back support. On a practical and local level, this likely means that places may continue to be buffeted by top-down interventions and ideas with uncertain outcomes. To realise any short-term benefits, authorities will need to resource these effectively while not taking their eye off longer-term priorities.

Little to no extra financial support - Local authorities are already seeing rising interest rates increasing debt financing costs, and our latest analysis suggests that one in six councils is at risk of financial failure. Nothing at conference suggests that this will change any time soon, and a very realistic best case is that funding remains level and unimpacted by anticipated reductions in public sector spending. We believe every authority should have its own detailed financial stability plan underpinning its medium-term financial strategy.  

Investment zones the route to levelling-up - Levelling-up continues but is to be driven by the newly announced investment zones with a focus on private rather than public sector investment. Local authorities will need to respond by 14 October if they wish to be considered for an investment zone – but the work will not stop there. The government wants to support areas where they will have the greatest impact on growth and housing supply. Thinking needs to demonstrate readiness to deliver: how places will reduce displacement, and the impact of wider economic shocks in the area.

Green is the new normal - Going green now permeates through everything. From skills policy to infrastructure investment and transport to pension funds, sustainability, and the push to achieve net-zero, are central to every action. Leaders need to understand how they integrate this into everything that they do.

In these unprecedented times, we are working with organisations across the sector to help them understand, navigate and overcome the changing landscape. We are here to help.

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