From Bournemouth to Liverpool: rounding up 2023's party conferences
Posted on Wednesday 01 November 2023 | Gareth Lyon
Gareth Lyon, our Public Affairs Lead, shares his experience of attending all three of the political conferences
The long shadow of the coming general election loomed large over this year’s party conferences. There was a noticeable change in tone as parties sought to establish ownership over key issues, to reassure vital stakeholders and to ensure that their party members are motivated.
For the Conservative and Labour parties, this meant reassuring businesses hoping to be seen as the champions of economic growth and productivity. It meant showing an ability to adapt to and take leadership on newer technologies such as AI, and trying to harness the energy of campaigning groups to secure their backing, or at least not to hand it to their opposition.
As the third party, neither in government nor the opposition, the focus for the Liberal Democrats was on emphasising a small number of issues on which they could make a unique contribution to the national debate – in particular environmental sustainability and the cost-of-living crisis.
As the IAB’s Public Affairs Lead, I attended all three of the major party conferences to represent the interests of our members and the digital advertising industry. Overall, they presented many opportunities for stakeholder engagement and to improve our insight into the parties’ policy thinking and internal priorities. Here’s a short summary of the key learnings from each one.
The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party conference was in many ways the most interesting this year – though, as we’ll come to later, that was more by Labour’s design than their own. Key focuses relevant to our industry included:
Genuine interest in artificial intelligence and digital services as possible sources of the elusive growth which the UK economy needs, recognising the need for increased dialogue and engagement – and possibly at some point in future, a more light-touch approach to statutory regulation.
Online safety and regulation, where debate centred on whether the Government had gone too far with “heavy-handed regulation” and if at some point pivot towards more of an emphasis free speech.
The role that SMEs can play in improving regional growth and the standard of living outside of London. Our Digital Dividend report gave us valuable points to make on the value of digital advertising to small business growth.
Reflecting the eagerness of Ministers to shift the debate and identify popular and effective policies, high-ranking Conservative politicians were available in abundance at the conference and very open to conversations. As a result, we emerged from the Conservative Conference having had some very positive conversations and with a good clutch of Ministerial follow-ups and a large assortment of Parliamentarians and think tanks keen to engage further. We enhanced this by co-sponsoring the Conservatives in Communications reception which had over 350 attendees and was a valuable opportunity for us to engage with stakeholders who make and influence policy affecting digital advertising.
The Labour Party
Labour’s leadership is convinced that the party’s electoral success in the mid-1990s was built on providing reassurance to the business community and avoiding any sudden lurches in policy or overly regulatory impulses that would drive them away, and they are seeking to replicate that approach now. This year’s incredibly disciplined and focused conference seemed to fully deliver on that objective.
On panel after panel, party speakers gave very little away in terms of policy detail, but words like partnership, predictability and consultation were ever-present. There was some recognition that on issues such as regulation of online safety and AI, Labour would likely want to go further than the current government – but surprises would be avoided.
As with the Conservatives, SMEs were being embraced as a key part of Labour’s economic thinking and we had a similarly enthusiastic response to our findings and messages from the Digital Dividend report.
This was a far larger Labour conference than usual, with demand for speakers outstripping supply, making it challenging to get time with Shadow Ministers. Those we did speak to, as well as senior Labour MPs and think tanks, indicated enthusiasm to engage now and in the future and we are taking them up on their offer!
The Liberal Democrats
Environmental sustainability was a key priority at the Lib Dem conference which was taking place the week after the Government had downgraded some of its Net Zero policies. Fringe events railed against this – and questioned the sincerity of wider business support for action in this area. Being able to highlight the positive work being done by the digital advertising industry on environmental issues helped to engage senior Lib Dems in conversations about this and to highlight wider points about the industry’s economic value.
The cost of living was another key topic where we could add meaningful contributions to the discussion, drawing on the findings from our Digital Dividend report that show the extent of savings that digital advertising delivers for consumers, and the even greater consumer value generated.
So, after a busy few weeks for politicians and public affairs professionals, what’s next? All eyes are now on the King’s Speech on 7 November that will set out the final legislative programme of the current government, moving up yet another gear in the drive towards the general election.