Over the past couple of weeks NPC was involved fringe meetings at both the Labour Party Conference in a (sometimes) gloriously sunny Liverpool, and the Conservative Conference in the fast modernising centre of Birmingham. So what did we learn?
Well in terms of devolution (the topic of our fringe meetings) quite a lot. At Labour we could all grill actual candidates for the Mayoralties of the Labour heartlands: the City of Liverpool (Steve Rotherham), Greater Manchester (Andy Burnham) and the much more contested West Midlands (Siôn Simon). When provoked they spoke positively of wanting to involve the voluntary sector in what they might do—not least because they all seemed keen on social issues like inclusion, poverty, building a decent future for young people. Steve Rotheram in particular outlined his idea for a commission on social justice that would involve the charity sector. That was all welcome—although it would be hard to say that the third sector was top of their list of priorities.
At the Conservative Conference we were unable to bag an appearance from the very real challenger to Siôn Simon in the West Midlands, Andy Street. But we did hear from one of the frontrunners to be the Tory candidate for Greater Manchester Sean Anstee, the remarkably young leader of Trafford Council. He appeared along with the leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council and the deputy leader from North Lincolnshire, two areas that are likely to have metro mayors as part of their devolution deals. They tended to emphasise economic development and housing even more than their Labour counterparts. All were keen on the devolution agenda but less so on the new metro mayors being created.
Interestingly, while the Labour event was ‘ram-packed’ (and not in the apparently subjective Virgin Trains way, it really was full!), with even John Prescott showing up, the Tory one was less popular. Cleary these new metro mayors have greater appeal to a Labour party where power at Westminster looks a more distant prospect. And it was also clear how different the issues and the scope of devolution feels to those in more rural areas compared to those from the big metropolitan cities.
Many people have evidently worked out—not surprisingly—that the Conservatives are the real, maybe the only, game in town and are likely to be so for some years. Birmingham was heaving with lobbyists, journalists and with many from the charity sector. All are trying to work out what makes this May government tick, what the new words and phrases you have to use are, and where the power really lies. Liverpool by contrast was less pressured, less like a business convention, less full of eager young men and women in sharp outfits.
And what about charities more generally? They were involved in a lot of fringe meetings, and a good number had stands to advertise their cause—certainly at the Conservative conference. Rightly they want to feel part of the policy debate and to get their views across. Many are worried about Brexit and the way it will affect their funding, their beneficiaries, and attitudes to migrants and those of foreign birth or appearance. Ultimately though, and as we’ve argued before, there are real opportunities—whether through the new devolved structures or at Westminster—for charities to engage with politicians (who can help or hinder the sector having a real impact). So it certainly was good to see so many charities flying the flag for the causes and beneficiaries they exist to serve.