Well, it’s all a bit discombobulating…

I’ve been going to the Party Conferences since 1997 and the autumn return to politics has ALWAYS followed the same pattern TUC, Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative and then SNP if you are strong enough.

There is a rhythm to it, a predictability.

But in 2023 for the first time in living memory, the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester will take place the week before the Labour Party Conference just over 30 miles away in Liverpool. 

And it changes everything.

I mean the actual conferences won’t change, the Conservative conference will still feel the same, very professional, a bit stiff, with lots of suits and set-piece speeches with polite clapping. A carefully managed and orderly expo of all things Conservative. An exhibition with tweed and cords and a Harvey Nichols concession taking centre stage. 

I doubt it will have quite the same edge as last year, when, if you remember, it took place when the party (and the country) was approaching a full meltdown, in that now surreal 49 days when Liz Truss was Prime Minister, and after the Kwarteng Budget that shook our financial institutions, and Conservative credibility to its core.

The Labour Conference will still be its delightful mix of late-night compositing, ballots, pranks, ambushes, factions, block votes and a lot of very passionate, quite shouty speeches from delegates. As ever, the goings on in the Conference hall will be impenetrable to the ‘ordinary’ visitor, who will live in the fringe and find out what happened in the hall via the news or in the bar in the early hours of the morning.

I’m expecting a bigger buzz than there was last year at the Labour Conference, when it took place a week after the Queen’s funeral and in the midst of economic chaos. Whilst the party had already edged ahead in the polls, it was not enjoying the 30-point leads we have seen since.

Expectations for Labour are high, by all accounts the party are expecting a bumper turnout from corporates and visitors, they have taken more space, expanded the exhibition, added marquees and are still struggling to fit everyone in. Anyone looking for hotel rooms in Liverpool recently will have found that out!

The exhibition will no doubt feel bigger and more corporate, but there will still be usual prime spots for the socialist societies, and an array of left-wing campaign groups promoting their causes. 

But whilst much will feel the same, the shifting of the order will mean that each party’s strategy and media management will need to be different.

Labour normally has the first-mover advantage. They are used to going first, setting up the narrative and dividing lines for journalists who then plough straight into the Conservative Conference. They have the ability to pre-empt key speeches, setting traps for their counterparts for the following week. They are first off the blocks and get to set the agenda and get people talking about what they want to focus on. 

Conservative party strategists are used to coming out strong at the beginning of their week. Taking on the Labour challenge and responding by turning the focus onto what they want to talk about. They highlight the (normally pretty evident) divisions at the Labour Conference, and take advantage of anything said on the fringe, or after a few drinks. Their speeches are normally littered with references to the week just gone. They have the last word, and send journalists back to Westminster having already tried to set the post-conference narrative.

When politics resumes next week, advisers, speechwriters, staffers and the public affairs community will begin the critical scene setting for a successful Conference season. 

And while expectations are low for the Conservative Conference, it will be the first for Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister and an opportunity to gain some much-needed political ground. He will go into it with everything to gain and little to lose. Will he take some risks?

Expect some strong pre-emptive attacks on Labour and their trade union paymasters holding the country to ransom with extortionate pay claims, a strong line on how Labour can’t be trusted with the economy and will increase stealth taxes that hit hard-working families, and some very bullish claims about how only the Conservatives will prioritise tackling immigration and putting the country on the path to growth. More than anything Rishi needs to look like a leader on the up, with the full support of his fragmented and frankly demoralised party. It’s a pretty tough gig.

For Labour, they will have to come out strong, shake off the attack, have tight party discipline, and management and present their best face to the public and corporate visitors who haven’t been to a conference in a few years. This Conference is a huge opportunity to solidify their position in the polls, connect with the public and inspire confidence in their ability to lead the country. Expect some key policy announcements designed to cut through, a reassuring tone and more depth around ‘securenomics’ and how mission-based Government can deliver for the country.

Each party expects a post-conference bounce in the polls as the news media focuses on them for a few days but when everything shakes down, will anything have changed?  

2023 is going to feel different, and a bit out of sync, but ultimately how the narrative emerges will determine when the Election is likely to be, the key election battlegrounds and the shape of politics for the next year. 

I hope your preparations for the Conference season are going well, the Inflect team will be out in force in both Manchester and Liverpool, so do get in touch if you need any help or advice to make the most of your time there.