This year’s party conference season felt like trying to make a journey on public transport this year in Britain. Tiring, expensive and unpredictable but ultimately worthwhile.
First stop Brighton - or perhaps not. The Liberal Democrat’s conference was cancelled as it fell on the same day as the Queen’s funeral. Unfortunate but the right decision. For a moment it looked as if the entire journey was going to be abandoned with the other conferences following suit but then both Labour and Conservatives confirmed they were going ahead. Onward! What’s more, the rail strikes that were going to impact Labour’s had been pushed back to affect the Conservative’s. Union members were acting presciently. The journey could finally begin, revised first stop Liverpool. Labour conference turned out to be buoyant, unified and professional, a more mature version of a party that had worked out who it was. The wheels were in motion, and they were well-oiled, and pretty well-communicated. A glimmer of hope! The party faithful, lobbyists and other delegates left feeling positive and listened to. The message that this was a government-in-waiting had been very firmly received. Whether this translates to a coherent policy for the rural economy down the line remains to be seen. However, we have a constructive relationship with the Labour Party and we will continue to build on this work.
Next stop, Birmingham. Lo – a signal failure! The fallout from the not-Budget had led to a number of MPs choosing to stay put in their constituencies, defying the wishes of their whips and causing minor headaches for event organisers like us. And it hadn’t even started at this point. Still, we made it to the Midlands, a little delayed. Our first event, partnered with the National Trust, considered whether ELMs should be a choice between protecting the environment and food production, a topic that was suddenly in the spotlight following the government’s explosive announcement the week before that it was considering putting ELMs under review. On the panel was MP for North Devon Selaine Saxby, CLA President Mark Tufnell, National Trust Head of Outdoor Resources Patrick Begg and moderator, Farmers Guardian’s Abi Kay. The panel was united in its answer that no, there does not need to be a choice and that food and the environment go hand-in-hand. The government’s position on the review was clarified as ‘a tweak, not a revolution’ in an effort to steady the ship. So far, so good. Our second fringe event in Birmingham, on the rural economy, was also a success, with the discussion led by Keighley and Ilkley MP Robbie Moore, CLA External Affairs Director Jonathan Roberts, Opinium polling’s Head of Policy James Crouch and chaired by journalist Marie Le Conte. A pragmatic approach to allow managed development in rural areas was espoused by the panel and audience, and the impetus for action was bolstered by statistics that showed rural communities are losing faith. We also met with the new rural growth minister, a position created following the launch of the influential APPG report on rural productivity, and learnt that we remain well-placed to secure further policy changes designed to strengthen the rural economy.
Consensual fringe events like ours took place amid an increasingly fractured backdrop, except this time it wasn’t the usual suspects who were lobbing grenades, and troublemaker backbenchers had been pushed to the side by serving Cabinet Ministers. It had the air of the beleaguered hung parliament of 2017, not a party with a 60-odd majority. Except instead of Brexit dominating the discourse, it was tax, benefits, and immigration. A party that doesn’t know its own direction makes influencing it all the more unpredictable. The wheels were coming loose. Rail strikes also meant that the majority of delegates were leaving Tuesday evening, before the PM’s speech. Metaphors galore. The journey is over, although the disruption may last a little longer.