Conservative Conference: A divided party and a new direction for levelling up

HOME 5 Blog 5 Conservative Conference: A divided party and a new direction for levelling up
This week’s Conservative Conference in Birmingham was full of drama. Amongst all that, conversations around the future of levelling up and tackling the decline of our high streets showed that supporting communities still remains top of many MPs' agendas. What remains to be seen is whether this view is held by those now at the top of the party.
5 Oct, 2022
Nick Plumb

Nick Plumb

Policy and Public Affairs Manager

The mood at Conservative Party Conference was very different to that in Liverpool the week before. It began against the backdrop of huge poll leads for the Labour, internal dissent over the measures in the mini-budget – the fiscal event which precipitated market turmoil and major intervention from the Bank of England last week – and a raft of senior MPs boycotting the event all together.

Despite this challenging context, strong currents of intellectual energy ran through the get-together, from very different traditions within the party. The low-tax, deregulatory approach advocated by Truss and Kwarteng was celebrated in countless fringe events by those at the more libertarian end of the party. Elsewhere, exciting new work was published by a group of 12 Conservative MPs rooted in the communitarian tradition.

Driving economic growth through community power

The report Social Capitalism sets out the ways in which a strong social base drives economic growth. The paper was launched at an event with Michael Gove, the force behind levelling up over the past few years, and Rachel Wolf, one of the key architects of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto which delivered the party its landslide victory. You can watch the session back here.

While the agenda laid out in the paper would be supportive for community business and communities more broadly, it did feel quite peripheral to the main debates at this conference. This is a mark of how quickly the Conservative Party has changed under new leadership.

The slow death of investment-led levelling up?

Power to Change had a strong presence at this year’s conference. We supported two panel events on levelling up and community ownership and a roundtable session on the future of the high street. At these sessions we heard, among others, from new Levelling Up Minister, Dehenna Davison and Minister for Local Government, Paul Scully. Both emphasised the importance of investment zones to this government’s version of levelling up.

However, no minster we heard speak made a firm commitment to measures in the Levelling Up White Paper or the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. All of this points to a very different flavour of the agenda going forward, which is more focused on tax cuts and deregulation in select places rather than government-led investment.

Austerity is on the horizon

Talk of austerity was back at this Conservative Conference. Recent market turmoil precipitated by large, unexpected tax cuts in the mini-budget has led many to call for measures which show Government can make savings to pay for these tax cuts. Throughout the week, I heard MPs from different wings of the party talking about public spending cuts with an air of inevitability.

If cuts to services which people rely on do come to pass, combined with the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis, it is likely communities and community businesses will see rising demand for their services. This will come at a time when these organisations are already struggling.

Political capital draining away?

A U-turn on plans to abolish the 45p rate of tax – now scrapped –demonstrates just how bruising a conference it has been for Liz Truss. It shows much political capital has been expended over the course of the last few days. There is trouble on the horizon, as rebellion on both the backbenches and in the Cabinet appears to be brewing over suggestions benefits won’t be raised in line with inflation. All of this points to a tricky few months for the new Prime Minister as she aims to deliver her bold new direction for Government.

However, the electoral reality in which she is operating remains largely the same. The Conservative Party will need to hold on to many of the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies that voted Conservative for the first time in 2019. Delivering tangible progress on levelling up before the next general election – such as through tackling high street decline – remains a priority for these MPs. Over the past few days, we have been banging the drum for a High Street Buyout Fund, which would enable communities to drive renewal of their high streets, and will continue to do so in the coming weeks.

How these debates within the Conservative Party play out over the next few months look set to define the direction of the country for years to come.