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Ioan Bishop, Care England’s Policy, Parliamentary and Projects Officer, attended the Conservative and Labour Party Conferences, and gives his thoughts below.

With the general election expected to take place in the spring or autumn of 2024, depending on who you ask, this year’s party conferences were, in all likelihood, the final chance for Britain’s political parties to set out their stalls to the party faithful before the country heads to the polls.

Going into conference season the fortunes of the two largest parties differed dramatically, with Labour having enjoyed a consistent 15-25 point lead over the Conservatives for the past year. While remaining relatively light on policy commitments, Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, appears to have been successful in his bid to present the party as a viable alternative to the current Government.

Things can change rapidly in politics, however, and the Prime Minister was undoubtedly hopeful that this would be the turning point for his party.

Attending the Conservative and Labour Party Conferences on behalf of Care England, and following the Liberal Democrat’s announcement of a £5bn per year social care plan the week before, I was seeking answers to two main questions:

  1. After 13 years in Government and a mixed record on delivering for adult social care, what ambitions do the Conservative Party have for the future of the sector?
  2. Aside from the rhetoric, what tangible policies would Labour implement to address the challenges facing adult social care if elected and, crucially, how would they be funded?

The beginning of the Conservative Party Conference was overshadowed by rumours that the West Midlands to Manchester leg of HS2 would be cancelled. While the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues diligently claimed that “no decision had been made,” the rest of the Conference played out, with attendees attempting to block out the noise from such a controversial U-turn in Government policy.

Over the week, it was fantastic to meet so many colleagues from the sector and hear of the many wonderful initiatives improving the lives of the people we support daily. As the general election looms ever closer, many organisations are honing in on their key policy asks and it was encouraging to hear a warm reception to Care England’s recent publication, Care For Our Future.

There were, too, positive sounds from some Conservative politicians about the Government’s progress across health and social care. The increased adoption of technology was highlighted as a particular success, and so too was the record funding the Government had committed to in last year’s Autumn Statement.

And, broadly speaking, the existing reform agenda appears one the Government are committed to. Helen Whately, Minister for Social Care, made particularly clear her commitment to Integrated Care Systems and localism more generally, even against calls for more national oversight in relation to areas such as terms, conditions and pay.

The speech delivered by Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, was met with disappointment by many in the sector given the lack of time devoted to social care. Mr Barclay’s policy announcements all related to the NHS and were relatively underwhelming given the scale of the challenges facing the wider health and social care system.

Private conversations suggested that there has been a shift in the Prime Minister’s approach to adult social care over recent months, with Rishi Sunak increasingly focused on delivering for the sector. Meaningful efforts to engage with the sector on winter pressures, for instance, are perhaps a sign of more to come.

Overall, while the Conservative Party Conference suggested the Government is committed to seeing through its existing agenda on adult social care, it also appears wary of any new headline commitments or bold new approaches to addressing ongoing challenges.

Buoyed by a crucial by-election victory in the days leading up to the Labour Party Conference, the mood in Liverpool was noticeably more optimistic and upbeat.

What became immediately apparent was the celebrity surrounding Labour’s leading figures. Attending any event featuring Wes Streeting, Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary, for instance, was a challenge to say the least.

A more accessible figure was Andrew Gwynne, the newly appointed Shadow Minister for Social Care. Appearing at numerous events over the week, Mr Gwynne gave an impassioned case for Labour’s plan for adult social care reform. While describing himself as a “localist by nature”, the Shadow Minister called for a national framework in relation to pay, terms and conditions, something which would be delivered through Labour’s New Deal for Workers. Addressing workforce challenges is clearly the party’s first priority if they are successful in their bid to form the next Government.

On the question of resources and how Labour would fund their plans, however, answers were not as forthcoming. If any further clarification was needed, it is apparent that Labour are terrified by the prospect of being labelled as making unfunded spending commitments, and are set on denying their opponents any opportunities to do so. The result is a somewhat bizarre mixture of a party that expresses a bold ambition for what adult social care would look like under a Labour Government but unwilling to publicly admit the level of investment necessary to bring that ambition to life.

Andrew Gwynne stated that when all is said and done, he would like to be remembered as “this generation’s Nye Bevan” for his work on social care. Whether this will be realised remains to be seen. Despite encouraging signs behind the scenes, it seems that growing electoral scrutiny will only increase the temptation for Labour to scale back on their plans for adult social care.

At the core of Care England’s mission is ensuring political actors understand the challenges facing adult social care and the solutions needed to address them. In many respects, the 2023 Party Conferences reaffirmed that there is a genuine desire among many politicians to see this translated in Government policy. Whether any party will stand firm and deliver, however, remains to be seen.