This year’s Labour Party conference, next week, takes place in Manchester for the first time.
Unlike the usual trips to the seaside, where the main hotel and the conference centre are enclosed in a ‘ring of steel’, the new venue means that ministers, MPs and delegates will be spread out across the metropolis.
It seems rather symbolic. Just at a time when the party really needs to be together, it will be further apart than ever before. Just when it faces its biggest challenge for a generation, with David Cameron ahead in the opinion polls and preparations for leadership handover to begin, it looks like being a pretty stormy occasion. They will need more than Manchester’s celebrated tram system to bring them together.
This government is fond of talking about family-friendly policies. At the moment, however, the party is struggling to be very genial among its own. It is a shame for employers, who will be hoping to hear not just some fresh ideas, but clarification of what Tony Blair plans in his last few months and how things will change under Gordon Brown.
Labour intensive care
The conference agenda is still being finalised, but one plan mooted over the summer was for only Blair and Brown to make keynote speeches, with the rest of the cabinet, including the trade and industry and pensions ministers, simply doing question-and-answer sessions.
The reason? Labour chair, Hazel Blears, wanted to find a way to avoid John Prescott’s annual “rabble-rouser” – the deputy being persona non grata, particularly among female MPs, thanks to the scandals that have surrounded him recently.
There is no doubt the Blair-Brown rivalry will dominate the conference, and it will be difficult to spot any policy announcements on employment practices and the work-life balance agenda – unless you look very closely.
One glimpse of the future has been outlined by the constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman.
Last month she suggested that employers could be forced to allow workers with children to work part-time and give staff paid time off work when their kids are sick. She also said that employees should be able to choose their own working hours and have a legal right to discover their colleagues’ salaries.
However, these suggestions must come with a health warning for any HR director already concerned about the radical proposals: Harman is running for the deputy leadership of the party and, in her current job, she is not directly in charge of the work-life balance agenda.
Expect to hear some tough rhetoric from home secretary John Reid. Privately he has been planning draconian measures that could see company directors struck off and their company’s assets seized if they are caught employing illegal workers.
The plans are designed to tackle the UK’s estimated 570,000 illegal immigrants, many of whom are believed to work in the construction industry, the rag trade, agriculture and pubs and clubs. Bosses would be well advised to get their lobbying of government in now.
In truth, the most immediate measures will come in November, when Blair publishes his final Queen’s Speech, containing 13 Bills. Unlucky for some. One of them is the Pensions Bill, which implements the government’s White Paper on the issue.
And this is one measure that could divide Blair and Brown. While the passage of the Bill will be well advanced by May, when the PM is expected to quit, the chancellor is known to have doubts about some key elements of the legislation, including plans for a compulsory savings account.
Ministers are also set to announce that 570,000 civil servants should make a bigger contribution to their inflation-protected pensions, which allow them to retire at 60 with a decent chunk of their final salary. The move is designed to plug the £700bn ‘black hole’ in Brown’s spending plans, which would otherwise be funded by the taxpayer.
Tory – tree cheers
By contrast, the Conservative conference is likely to be the most united for more than 15 years. Cameron looks as willing to take on Blair’s legacy as Brown says he is – expect to hear more details on this.
His big ideas to change the perception of the Tories – apart from changing the torch logo to that of a tree – are the family-friendly agenda and tackling climate change.
The Tory leader, who has brought a new energy and optimism to his party, has already made some ambivalent noises about big business. He has warned he would not be in hock with the bosses, but on the other hand, he has given warm words to firms which practice good corporate social responsibility.
He has praised Sky for boosting children’s sport Nike for tackling racism BP for focusing on energy efficiency and BT and Asda for promoting family-friendly working practices.
For the first time in years, a Tory leader is likely to face little sniping from the fringe, except for a few traditionalist ‘head-bangers’.
In his keynote speech, Cameron is likely to outline his plans to give working parents, including single mothers, tax relief to help with childcare.
Seeking to finally bury the image of the “nasty party”, expect him to say that the Tories must no longer condemn single parents, but help them instead. The Tory leader is expected to spell out plans to help parents balance work and family life, with proposals to raise tax thresholds that would see a family with two children earning up to £20,000 a year tax-free.
Everyone is fighting for the centre ground these days. The trouble with the Tories, though, is that we will not find out what they really intend to do for another year or so, when the various policy groups set up by Cameron report.
Liberal-dose, of sorts
The Liberal Democrat conference will be more interesting than usual also.
The party has suffered a lot of trauma in the past year with the ousting of an alcoholic leader, a lively leadership election and the wobbles of new chief Sir Menzies Campbell. With the possibility of a hung parliament at the next general election, the party probably deserves more scrutiny these days.
But the truth is there is little to divide the three main parties on employment practices. The Lib Dems’ little-known equality spokeswoman Lorely Burt has backed the Women and Work Commission proposals to create more part-time opportunities, for example.
Overall, this is likely to be the most interesting party conference season for years: Labour divided, the Tories united, and the Lib Dems… well, they haven’t made up their minds yet.