In this blog, Head of Public Affairs, Henry Thompson, and Policy and Public Affairs Assistant, Katy Litte, recap the highlights from the 2020 party conference season.
For the last two years the IFoA has attended the party conferences as it represents an excellent opportunity to engage policymakers and stakeholders on topics surrounding our key policy priorities. Party conference season is usually characterised by swarms of party members, politicians, think tanks and public affairs professionals, attending and running events on a wide range of issues. This year, however, saw the conferences move online as COVID-19 continues to dominate public life and the way in which organisations like the IFoA interacts with policymakers across the political spectrum.
Labour Party Conference
The highlight of Labour’s 2020 conference was always going to be Keir Starmer’s first address after assuming leadership of the party from Jeremy Corbyn. In stark contrast to previous Leaders’ speeches, Starmer delivered his keynote address to a near-empty room. He critically examined the current Government’s approach to COVID-19 and spoke about repositioning Labour as a competent, credible Opposition. However, it was impossible for Starmer not to reflect on Labour’s most recent electoral loss, with 2020 marking 10 years since the last Labour Government.
There were a few fringe events that piqued the interest of the IFoA – the first being an event with Jonathan Reynolds, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on job security and creation. The session focussed on how COVID-19 had seen a rise in insecure employment and caused uncertainty in the job market. It was thought that this trend had particularly affected younger generations and vulnerable groups, who, generally speaking, tend to find themselves in less secure work or on zero hour contracts. They are also more likely to have been furloughed during the pandemic. It became apparent that our campaign - the Great Risk Transfer- is very relevant to some of the issues that arose out this session. Although it was acknowledged that the Government had taken extraordinary financial measures to protect jobs and businesses, it was thought that it might not be enough in the long term to protect people from the financial risks that COVID-19 has thrust upon them.
The second event was run by the Chartered Insurance Institute which discussed the role of insurance in driving a green, sustainable and just recovery. Wes Streeting, Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, joined the session from the Labour frontbenches. The event examined the challenges that COVID-19 had brought around clarity of insurance policies, and explored how insurers can help build and restore trust to better serve the needs of policyholders, whilst also working towards a green, sustainable and equitable economic recovery.
Conservative Party Conference
After some initial glitches with the virtual conference platform developed by the party, COVID-19 (unsurprisingly) also dominated the majority of discussions on the Tories fringe event programme and in the minsters’ speeches.
On Monday, the Chancellor sought to demonstrate how the sweeping financial support the Government has provided to individuals and businesses across the country through the furlough scheme and the business support schemes had kept the country going. It’s easy to forget that this was Rishi Sunak’s first conference speech as Chancellor – only in post since February this year – and overseeing arguably the most challenging period any Chancellor has dealt with in recent memory.
The Prime Minister took to the stage on Tuesday to wind-up the conference. In what would usually be a battle cry to the party faithful (an element Johnson himself thrives off) the Prime Minister used his speech to reflect on the Government’s response to the pandemic and his own battle with the virus, as well as setting out his policy agenda for a post-COVID world. There was a strong environmental thread running through his remarks, in keeping with the ‘Build Back Better’ slogan found behind him on screen, with announcements on offshore wind grabbing the headlines.
Despite one obvious theme running through the entire fringe programme, there were some interesting sessions relevant to the IFoA’s policy work. The two that stand out include a discussion on the relevance of the Conservative Party manifesto that the party stood on just ten months ago and the impact of COVID-19 on social care. The former questioned whether the party would still be able to deliver on its ambitious manifesto commitments in a post-COVID world given the financial straightjacket the Chancellor is likely to find himself in over the coming months and years. The panellists, including DCMS minister Matt Warman MP and former Special Adviser Daniel Korski felt that the much-heralded levelling up agenda would be more important than ever as the country recovers from the pandemic. The session on social care considered the impact of the virus on the care system. With care homes bearing the brunt of the pandemic, all panellists were in agreement that the system is in desperate need of both financial and structural reform, to ensure it meets the needs of its users; something that the IFoA has been calling on government to act on for years.
This year’s conferences have demonstrated that the traditional format can be adapted for the virtual world, providing access to our elected representatives for an increased number of attendees who may not normally be able to attend in person. Whether the virtual format remains a regular feature remains to be seen; there is no substitute for face-to-face engagement with parliamentarians so we can expect this year’s events to be a one-of-a-kind – pandemic-permitting!