The party conference circuit saw the usual flurry of policy announcements. As always, the CBI was there to advance the views of members.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year so far in UK politics: the twists and turns of a general election, a historic result in Scotland and a bold agenda from the new government, not to mention new leaders for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It was against this backdrop that this year’s party conferences took place.
While the first conference season of a parliament can often be quieter for the business agenda, economic issues were front and centre in many of the debates at this year’s gatherings. Announcements around infrastructure, business rates, immigration, housing and the deficit made the headlines, as well as, of course, the debate about the UK and Europe in advance of the referendum.
In Manchester – the home of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – the Conservatives held their first conference as a majority government since 1996. At our packed fringe event, small business minister Anna Soubry emphasised the government’s commitment to improving productivity, getting down the deficit and improving skills – all CBI priorities.
The CBI welcomed prime minister David Cameron’s commitment in his conference speech to a UK that is strong in Europe, as well as planning reforms to boost the housing supply. We also welcomed chancellor George Osborne’s creation of an infrastructure commission – something which the CBI has called for – but cautioned that business rate reform must not turn into a way for local authorities to raise rates without the consent of local companies.
Listening to new leaders
With Labour’s conference in sunny Brighton coming so soon after the party’s leadership election, it was perhaps not surprising that there wasn’t much detail on policies directed at the economy and business.
The CBI stressed that while we share the aim of ensuring the benefits of growth are spread more evenly, we don’t recognise the characterisation of the economy put forward in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s speeches, as wages are increasing and economic growth continues to be positive. We were encouraged that new shadow business secretary Angela Eagle stressed her willingness to build a positive relationship with the CBI and its members when addressing our fringe event at the conference.
And for the first time, the CBI headed to a confident SNP conference in Aberdeen. Deputy first minister John Swinney struck a pro-business tone, and emphasised his desire to work with the CBI and Scottish business when speaking at our fringe. Responding to Mr Swinney’s speech to the main conference hall, the CBI welcomed plans to upgrade vital transport infrastructure and expand the rollout of high speed broadband.
With many new announcements at the conferences, and much change across the political spectrum, our priority now is working with all parties to achieve a pro-enterprise agenda. The next major milestone on the political calendar is the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Autumn Statement, which will set the tone for the months ahead as we reach the end of a busy political year.