Highlights from party conference season 2017

12 October 2017

As Autumn draws in it can only mean one thing for the true politico: party conference season is upon us. So far we have travelled to Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrats, Brighton for Labour and Manchester for the Conservatives. The hardy will also have been in Glasgow for the Scottish Nationalist Party, which finished on 10 October.

We review some of the speeches and activities of this year’s season with an SNP update to follow soon.

The Conservative Party, 1-4 October

The Labour Party, 24-27 September

The Liberal Democrats, 16-19 September


The Conservative Party, 1-4 October

The start of Conservative Party Conference kicked off with an interview with Boris Johnson in The Sun, in which he claimed to want to access the DFID budget and bemoaned the Foreign Office and DFID ever merging in the first place. This seemed to confirm rumours that have been swirling for a while that the foreign secretary had his sights on the aid budget. Yet during conference senior Conservatives were keen to stress that he was misquoted and he was instead referencing the need for the departments to work more closely together.

The secretary of state for international development Priti Patel addressed conference, speaking after being in post for over a year:

  • She said that the British public were right to be angry when they hear stories of wasted aid, saying “under my leadership the priority is value for money… and the removal of programmes that don’t stand up to scrutiny.” She challenged other government departments to raise their game, and to focus on performance-based results.
  • Perhaps most significantly, she used the speech to announce the conclusion of a DFID review of their suppliers, which she claimed would end the “appalling practice of fatcats profiteering from our aid budget” through a tough code of conduct with legally enforcing sanctions. She said that these reforms would put taxpayers and the world’s poorest ahead of supplier “middlemen”.
  • She said that 30% of UK funding to UN agencies would be conditional on improved results and reform, including saying: “for years the United Nations has ignored the shocking scandal of sexual abuse and the exploitation of children. This must end. I have told them that all future funding is subject to them implementing the highest standards of child protection; investigating all allegations; and securing prosecutions for those responsible for these crimes.”
  • She said that the job of everyone in development must be to end aid dependency, saying we should offer “a hand up not a handout”. She expressed her belief in “people, markets and freedom” and that countries who receive aid today should be our trading partners of the future.

Boris Johnson’s speech was billed as the one to watch. The queue to get in stretched around the conference centre with people eager to see what he might say or do next.

  • He began his speech by praising the FCO’s ministerial team, including the joint FCO and DFID roles of Alistair Burt and Rory Stewart. He spent much of the first half of his speech drawing comparisons between the Labour and Conservative parties and outlining a “Conservative vision for the UK”, including a national living wage and 30 hours a week of free childcare.
  • On Global Britain, the foreign secretary unsurprisingly highlighted Brexit as the opportunity for Britain to “engage with the world more emphatically than ever before.” He said that the we should accentuate and be proud of Britain’s role in the world, and play our part to make the world ‘safer, freer and more prosperous’.
  • He drew particular attention to the importance of female empowerment and education around the world, saying that driving this agenda forward can lead to the end of extremism.

The Prime Minister’s speech has been covered widely in the media, so I will just cover the politically salient points-the Prime Minister said some interesting things about our UK aid and the UK’s role in the world.

  • “And under this government, we will continue to meet the international aid target, spending 0.7% of our GNI on international development. That’s not just because it’s good for Britain, but because it is the right thing to do."
  • “Today, UK Aid is being used to bring food to starving children in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq. UK Aid is being used to bring water to drought stricken parts of Africa. UK Aid is helping to educate women and girls in parts of Asia where that most basic of human rights has been denied to them for so long. Yes, charity may begin at home, but our compassion is not limited to those who carry the same passport."
  • “But let me also be clear: it is absurd that international organisations say we can’t use the money to help all those that have been hit by the recent Hurricanes in the British Overseas Territories. Many people on those islands have been left with nothing. And if we must change the rules on international aid in order to recognise the particular needs of these communities when disaster strikes, then that’s what we will do.”

This was perhaps the longest championing of UK aid in a speech that we have heard from a British Prime Minister in a long time. Usually we get the short and that is why we are keeping our commitment to the world’s poorest through our 0.7% of GNI”. It was excellent to hear the Prime Minister speak so passionately about why the UK must stand tall and deliver UK aid and development. Perhaps, once and for all, she was trying to stop the ongoing debate about UK aid within her party.

The Prime Minister ended this section of her speech by criticising international organisations who set the rules on UK aid. These “international organisations” are in fact the OECD DAC and they have governed aid rules and decisions about which countries receive aid for decades.

The Conservative Party have committed to change the aid rules set by the DAC, but they will have to do this with the DAC and in agreement with the other countries that give overseas development assistance. Doing it alone would mean that not all of the UK’s aid budget would be recognised globally as ODA. You can read more about the government’s plans in our blogs next week.

The Labour Party, 24-27 September

This year the leadership changed the running order of conference so that shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry covered the Foreign Office, DFID, and defence. As expected the speech couldn’t possibly cover all the areas we might want to hear about as an international development sector. For example, there was no reference to the sustainable development goals. However she covered a range of other issues:

  • On development: “As Kate [Osamor, shadow secretary for international development] would say, in that world, we’ve got a decision to make. Either tackle head on the root causes of these crises or spend more and more every year dealing with the consequences. And, under a Labour government, that is a decision we will not duck.”
  • A focus on rule of law: “And if you believe as I do in what Jeremy [Corbyn] has called…“a world based on rules and laws” then this is the time, more than ever, when we need our leaders to stand up for that world order. To stand up for human rights and international treaties. And to insist on working through the United Nations for peace.”
  • A commitment to reform the way that arms are exported: “The fact is that arms export decisions made by Tory ministers are entirely subjective assessments taken without proper parliamentary scrutiny without listening to independent, expert advice, but listening far too much to lobbyists for the arms trade and repressive foreign regimes. A process that leads to nonsensical double-standards, where the government can decide too late that selling arms to Myanmar is wrong but immediately increase its sales to Saudi. It is an arms control regime that was already outdated but which the Tories have systematically abused, undermined and left fatally discredited.”
  • Criticism of Donald Trump: “it’s more like what we would expect from a rogue dictator. And what makes it even worse is to see this Tory government and this Tory prime minister pathetically going along with it all walking hand-in-hand with Trump at the White House, supine, sycophantic and spineless.”

The shadow secretary of state for international development, Kate Osamor, did have an opportunity to speak at our event. In it she:

  • Stressed the importance of maintaining 0.7% of GNI and addressing how UK aid is spent to ensure transparency and effectiveness
  • Outlined Labour’s vision focused on human rights, social justice and quality - not charity.
  • Set out three principles to improve development:

Purpose - a focus on outcomes and not just amount of money

Principles - tackling inequality and injustice

People - helping movements, grassroots and civil society activists

  • Launched the “#AskPriti” initiative which allows members of the public to suggest questions for the shadow DFID team to ask.

The Liberal Democrats, 16-19 September

The Liberal Democrat conference was Vince Cable’s first as party leader. In his speech he said:

  • “Brexit Britain will be poorer and weaker” than if the UK stays in the EU. He emphasised a need to put aside tribal differences and work alongside like-minded people in parliament to keep the single market and the customs union. He called on the government to give the British public the right to vote on the outcome of the UK’s negotiations with the EU
  • He said that the Liberal Democrats will always fight for the green agenda of sustainability and understanding how to combat climate change.

We also heard from recently returned Jo Swinson who is Liberal Democrat spokesperson for international development:

  • Her speech criticised the global “politics of the bully” which she said threatens human rights, spreads division and causes climate change to continue to be ignored.
  • She highlighted the ongoing human rights crisis in Myanmar, and increase in natural disasters, such as the hurricanes in the Caribbean, and the rise in populist politics as key indicators.
  • She called for “new, 21st century, liberal solutions...to bring people together to create the answers”.


Conference seasons continues to be a helpful and productive time to influence political parties and learn more about their policy direction. We get to see politicians within their communities. For those of us that travel around the country, it is an exhausting process, but by the end, you feel a deeper level of understanding towards all the political parties - even if you end with conference flu.


About the author

Ali Louis headshot

Bond's public affairs and government relations manager, Ali has previously worked for Unicef UK and in parliament. She has an MA in International Politics and Development from Newcastle University.