Reflecting the current times of remote technology and online webinars, the UK’s first virtual Conservative Party Conference took place early last week between 3rd – 6th October and gave a clear insight into the Party’s key focus’ for the next decade.
Inevitably, all of the major political party conferences have focused on what the UK’s recovery will look like post-Covid and post-Brexit. Key note speeches, delivered by the front bench and a variety of fringe events drove home the Government’s intentions to move towards a ‘green industrial revolution’, to upskill the workforce and create a ‘high-skilled economy’, and to level up the country, giving equal opportunities to all areas of the UK.
These goals can all be summed up into the phrase promoted by the party – “building back better, greener and fairer”.
1. Building back better
On “building back better”, whilst this is a very general goal, there was a broad focus on housing, skills, and infrastructure, both digital and traditional.
On skills and infrastructure, the debate included both Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education and touched upon the importance of upskilling the population, and increasing opportunities for Further Education. This isn’t necessarily a new point being made, given the indications made by Gavin Williamson in the summer this year when he suggested abandoning the long-established 50 per cent higher education target.
What was new this time was the unveiling of the JETS (Job Entry Targeted Support) programme, a programme for those who have become unemployed due to Covid-19, and will provide support for those who have been unemployed for three months. Given that there were 156,000 fewer young people in employment in the three months to July compared to the previous quarter, the Scheme is likely to be an important support for graduates who have recently entered the workforce and have not been able to find employment.
The lifetime skills guarantee was also discussed in depth, as its aim is to fund technical courses equivalent to A-levels for adults, all of which teach courses in high demand areas. These will be available to anyone who left school without an A-level or its equivalent, and provides the opportunity to upskill, or change career paths.
2. Building back greener
The Prime Minister also announced new plans to “Build Back Greener” and for the UK to become a world leader in clean energy, which will in turn create jobs and cut carbon emissions. This ties into the UK leading the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in partnership with Italy next year, which is a series of climate talks which will bring together heads of state, climate experts and campaigners to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change.
Highlights from the Prime Minister’s speech include a new £160 million investment in upgrading ports and infrastructure in communities across Northern England, Scotland and Wales in order to increase offshore wind capacity. This new investment will create around 2,000 construction jobs and will enable the sector to support up to 60,000 jobs directly and indirectly by 2030 in ports, factories and throughout the supply chains, manufacturing the next-generation of offshore wind turbines and delivering clean energy to the UK. The hope is that part of this investment will be directed towards research and development into modernising the UK’s offshore wind capacity and investing in new innovations that can set the UK on track towards its 2.4% ambitions.
These announcements were well endorsed by the energy sector and common consensus is that there is no better time for the Government to invest in renewables, which will create benefits for consumers and jobs.
3. Building back fairer
The Prime Minister highlighted that talent, but not opportunity, was spread evenly in the UK, and several fringe events echoed the need for the approach to the levelling up agenda to be reflected in R&D and industrial policy, and strategic objectives to increase spending on infrastructure projects to be more equally spread across the country.
It was also noted that London and the City have a unique opportunity to play in the levelling up agenda. Financial and professional services are a significant part of the economy, and although their hubs are often located in London, two thirds of staff employed in the professional and financial sectors are not based in London.
There are several challenges facing the levelling up agenda, not least the implications of Covid-19 on local economies.. The skills challenge also remains prominent, and there is the need to increase supply and diversity of talent throughout the economy. It was also argued that levelling up has to touch all areas of the UK, inclusive of areas within London, where there were some of the highest levels of poverty in the country.
The Conference highlighted the party’s desire to work on issues that might appeal to previous Labour voters, with a distinct vision for the future of the UK beyond the pandemic and Brexit, outlined in detail in the Prime Minister’s keynote speech on Tuesday. The focus on environment and upskilling the workforce was strong, and amidst many competing funding priorities in a post-Covid, post-Brexit UK, it will be important to ensure targeted funding in skills and research is making an impact and that the UK does not fall behind in its ambition to become a world-leading science superpower.