Insights from the Labour Party Conference 2023

Our Head of Policy and Networks, Mark Corbett, reflects on his time at the Labour Party Conference 2023, following on from Diana’s reflections on the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month. 

This week I attended my first ever political conference in Liverpool, representing London Higher at the Labour Party Conference 2023. 18,000 people gathered across the Liverpool dock area to lobby, network and share ideas. I arrived on the Saturday evening, in time for the London Region Reception where I managed to catch, albeit briefly, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.  

Before I reflect on the conference, I want to say what an impressive city Liverpool is. The wonderful civic buildings, from a previous age, and the modern developments around the dock are the perfect backdrop for this kind of event.  

The main takeaway from this conference is that Labour really does have the unrivaled attention of industry and business leaders, and that they are clearly seen as a government in waiting. Starmer’s speech seeking “10 years of renewal and healing” still lacks policy detail, but what was evident to me, was that higher education and universities are emerging as vital for Labour’s plans. From training more teachers to the commitment to accelerating net zero plans, or from facilitating social mobility to supporting growth through innovation – all would be underpinned by our sector. The positive rhetoric from Labour is refreshing; it’s great to see the higher education sector recognised for all that it does; but there was still precious little on how a Labour government would address the long-term sustainability of higher education in England.  

There was no shortage of higher education related events though, thanks to the presence of HEPI, Wonkhe, university mission groups and think tanks. The sheer number of fringe events meant Diana and I were often ships in the night as we went from one event to another. 

HEPI’s panel on a manifesto for higher education was one of the larger events on the fringe where three vice-chancellors who wrote HEPI Report 164 – Election 2024: Three vice-chancellors’ manifestos were joined by Andy Westwood in a lively discussion. The event was held in the historic White Star Grand Hall, the White Star of RMS Titanic fame. Duty of care was a live issue (Natasha Abrahart’s parents were in the audience), as was industrial action, but it was really the underlying financial issues facing institutions and students that made up most of the discussion.  

Duty of care was raised again in a session on mental health from the Social Market Foundation. Shadow higher education minister Matt Western spoke about the role of the Office for Students (OfS) and its shortcomings in supporting students. Following an initial statement on duty of care, Matt did clarify that best practice and not regulation would be his preferred route.  

A theme I heard time and again throughout events in the fringe, as well as in the main hall, was the aspiration of working people – and critically the role universities play in realising this aspiration and transforming lives. The narrative of being the first in the family to go to university, referenced when Marie Tidball introduced Keir Starmer, was echoed by several MPs in panels and through their speeches. Both the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Education Secretary took the opportunity in their keynote speeches to affirm the Labour Party’s commitment to higher education. Starmer went as far to make this support a fault line when he called out Rishi Sunak on his “false dream” statement and Bridget Phillipson warned that the current narrative from the government was “degrees are for their children, not ours”. 

In terms of firm policy announcements on higher education, we’re still waiting. There is a commitment to create a new expert body, Skills England, that brings together representatives of tertiary education, local and central government with representatives from business leaders and trade unions. In addition to strategic oversight of skills needs across England, the new body will also be responsible for assessing bids for colleges to become ‘Technical Excellence Colleges’. My initial reaction is that this seems to be a remarkably similar idea to the Institutes of Technology. Outside of this, there was recognition of the challenges students face on the cost of living and the closely related issue of mental health.

Room full of people watching a panel discussion.

On the R&D side, Shadow Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Peter Kyle MP announced plans for a longer-term approach to innovation. He promised 10-year funding settlements to end the “chaos and instability” of the past 13 years and an aspiration for investment to be 3% of GDP. There was a commitment to work with universities to harness technologies that will support growth and the better support the start-ups and spin-outs that our universities are so good at generating through their Start-Up, Scale-Up plan.  

Diana and I’s only joint meeting of the conference was to meet Matt Western in the Heathrow Lounge, immediately after Starmer’s glittery speech on the Tuesday. Following that, I had one last networking dinner before heading back to my hotel for my final night in Liverpool.  

So that’s the conference season over for now, but the next 12 months will be hugely significant politically. I have heard speculation around the timing of the general election from conference attendees, with many convinced a spring or summer election is on the cards (perhaps following the local elections if they go better than expected for the Conservatives). Regardless, unless there are any significant changes, my immediate sights are set on the mayoral election. If you are interested in feeding ideas into our Manifesto for HE in London we have a workshop on 26 October with opening remarks from the vice-chancellor of UAL and former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, James Purnell.