If party political conferences seem strange to most in normal circumstances, the pandemic has made them stranger still. The annual autumnal gatherings of each party’s faithful went entirely virtual this year. The usual buzz, hype and intrigue confection was replaced with an eerie sense of distance.

The shift to digital wasn’t the most obvious change. What stood out was how deeply uncertain the political class is about the future. How best to approach the pandemic, Brexit and their aftermath, and glaring structural economic differences across and within the UK was almost completely preoccupying. Yet despite the full agenda, the main speeches were well shy of solutions. Instead there was a surfeit of talk about values, leaving little for scrutiny in concrete policy terms. Perhaps planning and policy development are in overdrive behind the scenes in Whitehall and opposition HQs. But we were left none the wiser in the conference auditorium.

Fringe benefits

The fringe events are often where the real and sometimes controversial discussions take place. At Labour’s fringe event I joined Jon Ashworth (shadow health secretary), Rachel Reeves (Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster), the General Secretaries of GMB and Unite, and Vaughan Gething (Welsh government health minister) to discuss how health and wellbeing can be put at the heart of society. The conversation was good, but focused heavily on managing the pandemic, rather than long-term thinking. And although there was clear support from Labour for a cross-government strategy to reduce inequalities in health across the country, as yet there were few specifics, including what might be the role of local government.  

At the Conservative fringe a key question was: where does health and care fit in the Tory levelling up agenda? Is the latter just about construction (more hospitals!) and transportation links (HS2!), or something more? It was encouraging to see these conversations happening, with Conservative MPs making the case for improving the nation’s health being at the heart of a levelling up agenda. But, again, less clear was what exactly this meant in practice.

To extend the amount of illness-free life we all live by an average of 5 years by 2035, and to reduce the health gap between rich and poor – pledges made in the government’s 2018 prevention strategy – much more needs to be done now than the government has set out. For example coordinated national action on the social determinants of health such as better housing, education, income, employment. For example action on the commercial determinants of health such as junk food promotion. For example a grown up collaboration with local government. There were signs that the newly elected MPs from former red wall areas got this – the question is will they be tactically savvy and organised enough in the months ahead to bang the drum more loudly and act to get this further up their freedom-loving leader’s agenda?

Follow the leader

Finally, it’s worth recognising that these were the first not-quite-conference outings for two new party leaders. Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer was deprived of an effective opportunity to make a proper policy pitch to the nation. Instead, a personal get-to-know-me speech from Sir Keir, with his values and experience, contrasted with that of the Prime Minister. While he did include a nod to health in the list of his priorities, as yet there is nothing concrete to underpin the new slogan ‘a new leadership’. With an election probably 4-and-a-half years away, Labour has time to develop its plans.

Meantime over at the Liberal Democrat’s equally digital event, another new leader and knight of the realm, Sir Ed Davey, also gave his first leader’s speech to conference. Again he focused on his backstory, ultimately pledging to be the voice of the nation’s carers. As social care in this country continues to be a political nut that just won’t crack, these words are perhaps some comfort. But if Davey’s Lib Dems are able to move this debate forward in any way remains to be seen.

As this unusual conference season came to a close there were signs of consensus emerging on health from our national leaders. The rhetoric of the three party leaders overlapped in many areas: all spoke of the contribution of key workers (including care workers), the power of a green recovery, and their commitment to the NHS.

Fine words for sure. But we need far more than that now.

Jennifer Dixon (@JenniferTHF) is Chief Executive of the Health Foundation.

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