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Ed's Party Conference round up

6th Oct 2017 / By Ed Barker

The NPA's senior policy advisor Ed Barker braved the party conference circuit. Here's his take on an eventual few weeks in politics. 

Ed BarkerThe past few weeks have been dominated by the annual suite of party conferences around the UK. These events are normally exercises for political parties to regroup, fire up the grassroots and look ahead to new policy areas. With the spectre of Brexit looming in the background, it was quite an interesting few weeks for all of the major parties. The NPA was in attendance at both the Labour party conference in Brighton and the Conservative conference in Manchester, attending a number of fringe events, as well as events hosted by the NFU.

Last autumn, it was the Conservatives who were in jubilant mood; a new Prime Minister and a new dynamic Cabinet in place saw the party’s poll ratings hit the highest levels for over 25 years. Meanwhile a downbeat labour party had come through a divisive leadership battle that saw a conference dogged by infighting and accusations of fringe groups permeating the party at all levels. Well – what  a difference one year can make, as the tables were very much reversed this autumn. Labour were in buoyant mood, and Brighton was almost in carnival atmosphere as swathes of younger party supporters descended to what was a very sunny south coast. Fringe events were well attended, with actual party members predominantly in attendance, as opposed to lobbyists. Contrast this with the Conservatives, in a grey, windswept Manchester that seemed an entirely fitting backdrop for the conference. Sombre looking MPs, staff and lobbyists were everywhere – even the protestors appeared to feel sorry for them. As for party members? Well they seemed to stay away altogether.

On food and farming, what was interesting for the NPA was how similar many of messages were at both red and blue conferences. At the Labour conference NFU-FDF fringe, which featured Shadow Defra minister Sue Hayman and food critic Jay Rayner, much discussion was devoted to accurate labelling and achieving a balance between small and larger scale producers, and ensuring that family farms are not driven out of business via Brexit. Freedom of movement and equivalence of standards from imported products were discussed, as they were the conservative party conference. In a similarly packed out meeting in Manchester, Michael Gove discussed a replacement CAP, education and careers in agriculture, declining abattoirs and climate change.

Although the backdrop of Westminster is seeing a fundamental ideological divide between the two main parties, it was notable how much similarity there was on food and farming; something we have not possibly seen for some time. It could be because we are still effectively at the ‘ideas’ of stage of Brexit, when it is fairly easy to agree on what the key issues are – experience usually shows that the real scraps start when proposals are put forward  as to how they should be met.

Parliament returns next week – though the legacy of party conferences will no doubt linger on.