IOE and IT team give their takeaways from the Conservative Party Conference

Fri 6 Oct 2023
Posted by: IOE&IT team

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The prime minister made headlines with his long-trailed announcement on the newly limited shape of HS2, while other political heavyweights drew their share of the spotlight by throwing even more suspect shapes. But beyond the big stories, what did delegates from the Institute of Export and International Trade (IOE&IT) make of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this week?

With the Labour conference in Liverpool still to come, here are a few reflections on a “somewhat flat” conference that still yielded some thought-provoking moments.

Apprenticeships assessed

Grace Thompson, IOE&IT public affairs lead, highlights a ‘levelling up’ panel session she attended that focused on skills and apprenticeships that took place in “a sea of green-lit silent disco headphones”.

Theresa Villiers MP, vice chair of the Apprenticeships All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), said that there is a need to use apprenticeships to plug the UK’s skills gap, which could be achieved by “mak[ing] it easier for small businesses to take on an apprentice.”

Mayor of Liverpool, Steve Rotheram, also spoke about the skills gap the UK is facing and described the need for the education system to be more “nimble” regarding apprenticeships — he raised his idea of transforming the current apprenticeship levy into the apprenticeship and skills levy.

Former college lecturer and current MP Lia Nici argued that the number of processes required for SMEs to take on apprentices acted as a “huge disincentive”.

Thompson posed a question to the panel on the possibility of regional hubs of sector-specialist supporters, who could be available for physical assignment to support apprentices within the businesses themselves.

This, she suggests, could be particularly helpful for SMEs trying to support international trade apprentices of all kinds. The answers were positive:

“Mayor Rotheram’s answer of ‘yes please’ was followed by a suggestion by Naomi Clayton, director at the Learning and Work Institute, that something similar to this model could be formed by looking at previous similar best practice models and attempting a wider roll-out across the country.”

‘Challenges and opportunities’

IOE&IT external affairs director Chris Martin notes that the “overall mood was relatively flat” in comparison to previous years, but that there was “strong engagement” with a panel session on trade and the dream of a ‘Global Britain’, co-hosted by IOE&IT and The Spectator.

"The discussion ranged widely on many aspects of the UK's developing place in the world.

“The panel agreed that small businesses need more support to start and keep trading internationally, and that many of the big picture issues, such as free trade agreements, often have a relatively small impact on GDP growth.”

The panel also put the focus on the local and regional relationship with international trade, highlighting the “challenges and opportunities” in cities like Manchester.

Trade ‘not a standalone topic’

Also attending as part of the external affairs team was public affairs intern Charles Bowden, who makes the observation that trade “wasn’t a prominent subject in the conference brochure”. It was, however, the subject of some “high-quality” discussions on the conference floor.

“What was noticeable was the interconnectedness of other subjects and how they tied into trade. From levelling up to investing in infrastructure, exporting and upskilling were core components of each economics-focused panel.

“These are issues of vital importance to our members and our work.”

With all the news around HS2, Bowden says it was “encouraging to hear panels that advocated for greater investment in connectivity”, as well as increased opportunities for young people through skills and apprenticeships and the advancement of UK interests through foreign policy.

With the event taking place in Manchester, he adds, it was “refreshing to hear an emphasis on regionalisation throughout” — a topic at the heart of IOE&IT’s activities at both this year’s Conservative and Labour conferences.

“If there’s one thing to take away from this conference, it’s that trade is not a standalone topic. It was a crucial part of almost every discussion I attended.

“When it was the main topic, it showed – the subject was so popular that IOE&IT’s panel discussion was standing-room only.”

Regardless of affiliation, Bowden notes, there was “consensus” that the UK should work to drive exports, and that focusing on all regions and their ability to export is “the best way” to achieve this.

‘Quiet clinging to the faith’

IOE&IT external affairs executive James Innes was also on-site, and reports a “quiet air of inevitability” to the conference, a response perhaps to what lies ahead for the Conservative Party at the next general election.

The mood in all quarters was comparatively muted, Innes says:

“The halls were not as packed, the fringes not as well attended and the bars, usually teeming with lobbyists and party members until well past midnight, were just not as full as in previous years.”

Nevertheless, he suggests, there remain those who believe — though by focusing more “on the perceived flaws of the Leader of the Opposition than [on] the Conservative Party’s strength”.

These voices were encouraged, perhaps, by prime minister Rishi Sunak’s policy announcements during his speech on Wednesday — though “whether it’s enough or not is another matter entirely”, Innes stipulates.

There was a “quiet clinging to the faith that [the election] might not actually turn out so badly”, however, and a strong showing for meaty policy talk.

“There remains at conference a desire to engage in serious policy discussions, as seen by the fantastic turn out we got at the IOE&IT and Spectator event.”