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All change – a view from party conferences

Trains, or the lack of them, were on everyone’s minds at the beginning of party conference season. September gave us a bumper crop of strikes, overtime bans and the delayed announcement signalling the end of HS2. It made the trip to Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference an uncomfortable ride, in every sense of the word.

For anyone who knows how these things work, the two main political parties usually stick to a ‘ceasefire’ during conferences. But this year it was different. To start with, the party in power normally holds the final conference of the season. Due to a bookings clash in Liverpool, Labour’s conference took the coveted final slot of the season. The idea, to leave the party’s messages resonating in the ears of voters. The counteroffensive was a series of Conservative set pieces for the media. It was a clear sign the unofficial General Election campaign is underway.  In the end, despite the noise and the glitter, the media rightly focused on the horrors unfolding in Israel and Gaza.

Behind the headlines of any party conference are a multitude of events from every wing of a party. There are chance encounters, some useful, some less so. It’s fascinating to glimpse what is driving the political weather. Attending the conferences takes the temperature of a party. What is really going on, the mood, the tone, the buzz and the talk in the fringe events and cafes.

It’s all change since I last attended party conferences, pre-pandemic. Attending on behalf of ECA, I was there to talk about net zero and the skills needed to reach the 2050 target. With the Prime Minister’s  announcement softening  deadlines for a transition to EVs and heat pumps, there was a mixed mood at conference. A few Conservative MPs openly stated that Rishi’s net zero announcement was misjudged in the face of the dangers posed by climate change. Others said we needed a new narrative. Yet others bracketed net zero, which has seen industry invest billions and enjoy broad cross-party consensus, with the ‘woke’ agenda.

In Manchester I saw a party divided. Outside the fringes there was debate about who might make a bid for the leadership, post-election. Groups such as the Conservative Environment Network were still seeking solutions to complex challenges. Yet it was hard to see how loud their voices would be in a party grappling with its future direction.

In the main, ordinary party members were missing. Stewards shepherded extras to fill seats in front of the main stage and exhibitors stayed away in their droves. On my way to hear about Welsh Net Zero Infrastructure, I was caught up in the media frenzy around the Liz Truss fringe. On camera it looked packed, in fact it was simply a crowd in a small hotel lobby. I’ve been in larger crowds waiting for a train.

Arriving in Liverpool on a gloriously hot October morning, the mood matched the weather. Seventeen thousand people attended the Labour Conference. The Albert Dock ‘campus’ is huge. This year Labour held its first SME Sunday.  It gave unprecedented access to Jonathan Reynolds’ Shadow Business team. The day was topped and tailed by Angela Rainer and Keir Starmer who lead their party. All the parliamentarians were in listening mode, keen to hear from our sector.  What will it take to ‘rewire Britain’? I was keen to talk about the skills and training to make Labour’s net zero commitment a reality.  The Labour leadership see the opportunities of the energy transition as an economic imperative to get the country back on its feet. With Rishi Sunak’s net zero announcement creating an election wedge between the two parties, net zero will be baked into the Labour manifesto. How they reach their goals is open for further debate. In conversation with Labour politicians, it was clear they were eager to talk to industry about the skills needed to achieve an economic boom.

ECA (and our sector) are gatekeepers to unlocking the net zero prizes any future government want to win. If politicians don’t tap into the knowledge and expertise of ECA and its Members, poor legislation may be the result. No government wants to be responsible for the unintended consequences of ill-thought-out policies. The stakes are high; unsafe electrical installation, loss of grid capacity and a workforce unfit to install the technologies of the future. They know they need to listen. In the past the electrotechnical firms have been out of mind for most politicians. That is no longer the case, awareness of the sector is growing. Behind the pledges and the missions, sensible conversations are taking place.

Finally, to answer the question everyone is asking. The General Election will take place in May or October, depending on who you talk to. But everyone agrees it won’t be before inflation drops to 3%.