Reflections on the 2019 party conferences
Jessica Levy is the Public Affairs Manager at the National Housing Federation
17 October 2019
Whisper it, but it feels like there’s a general election coming. The campaign slogans are set, the troops are being rallied, but will the political parties be able to move beyond Brexit? The UK’s tortuous exit from the European Union set a clear backdrop to this year’s party political conferences. But alongside the agonising, a clear wish to move beyond Brexit and get back to the domestic agenda ran as a golden thread throughout party conference season.
What do the Conservative Party want? They want to invest in our NHS, schools and police. And to “Get Brexit done”, of course. So read the banners welcoming party members, the media and the National Housing Federation alike to soggy Manchester late last month for the annual party conference.
Boris Johnson’s first as Prime Minister, and Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey’s first in the crucial housing briefs. For the Federation, it was an opportunity to partner with a range of right of centre think tanks, to ensure the housing association message is receiving as broad a hearing as possible. At a time when Conservative interest is noticeably shifting back to ownership, is it import to keep promoting the need to invest in social housing.
At packed events with Onward, Policy Exchange, ConservativeHome and the Centre for Social Justice, Kate Henderson shared platforms with Esther McVey, and welcomed her commitment to be “tenure blind” and see a mixture of homes built.
As in Brighton with the Labour Party the week before, this year’s Conservative Party conference provided us with the chance to hold a series of productive bilateral meetings with local authority leaders and metro mayors. We know that on the ground, this local government relationship is vital to our members.
The LGA is committed to working on our shared agendas around homelessness, supply, and building safety. On this latter, vital policy priority for our sector, the new Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick spoke of his sleepless nights, and passionately of his commitment to act at pace, to support building owners, and work together.
With an election in mind, the Conservatives announced a series of retail offers designed to appeal to Labour’s voting base, such as an increase in the National Living Wage. For the sector, the main announcement was on a right to shared ownership, which I hope you will have seen our reaction to.
For the Labour Party, “people before privilege” was this year’s mantra. The Party took on the private schools and the pharmaceutical industry, and promised a four-day working week. There was real interest in measures to tackle climate change, including at many of the housing fringes that the National Housing Federation attended. Trailed for Jeremy Corbyn’s speech (but delivered a few days later following a changed approach once the Supreme Court had ruled against the Government on the suspension of Parliament), Labour announced it would scrap Universal Credit.
The Supreme Court’s decision changed the mood of conference considerably. The week had begun with division as elements of the Party’s ruling Executive moved to strip Deputy Leader Tom Watson of his role. But it ended with the buoyancy of a Party reveling in having the whip hand in this current constitutional crisis.
Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey was clearly in election mode, appearing at fringes the Federation hosted in partnership with the New Statesman and Smith Institute, with commitments to ramp up grant to help housing associations and councils to build. We were pleased to see the newest member of the Shadow team, Alex Cunningham, taking part in so many events hosted by housing associations, and hear his commitments to the sector. The launch our research on the scale of the housing crisis for the Monday of Labour Party conference was excellent timing; at platform after platform our figures were used by Labour Shadow Ministers and backbenches, sector partners, and our members.
The rejuvenated Liberal Democrats were “demanding better than Brexit”, and better for the NHS, communities, schools and the environment, at their party conference in Bournemouth. Responding to the growing saliency of the LibDems, who may once again be placed in the position on kingmaker in an inconclusive general election, the Federation spent a day discussing housing with the Party by the seaside.
As every year, party conference season demonstrates the power of the whole sector speaking with one voice, and taking all the opportunities to tell our story to those with political power and influence. We are not through this period of change in UK politics, and as such, we cannot assume our message has been accepted. Looking toward a Budget on 6 November, and an election in the not too distant future, there are key moments when housing should be centre stage. It is all our jobs to make sure it is.