Special Report: Abta takes political temperature at party conferences

Stephen D’Alfonso, Abta head of public affairs, took a whistle-stop tour of the big political gatherings at the end of the summer to assess the implications for travel

If you’re not involved with politics, you might regard party conferences as a media circus which dominates the news for a few weeks before everyone goes back to what they were doing. Yet these events are important to our industry.

Abta’s whistle-stop tour of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party (SNP) conferences made clear the party priorities and policy fault-lines which will impact our industry and provided a preview of future policy issues.

For those on the ground, the conferences are an opportunity to discuss policy and think about the future.

For organisations like Abta, party conferences offer a chance to catch up with policymakers and grassroots supporters, and to influence policy discussions, represent our members’ views and put travel on the political agenda.

We do this through one-on-one meetings, panel discussions on industry topics and receptions for conference attendees.

At both the Labour and Conservative conferences, we helped to organise a ‘Big Transport’ debate with the aviation minister, Robert Goodwill, and shadow transport secretary, Lillian Greenwood.

We also joined the Airport Operators Association and the aviation industry coalition Sustainable Aviation in hosting a dinner with key MPs.

Together, these events hosted more than 10 senior politicians, including Goodwill, Greenwood and shadow aviation minister Richard Burden, giving us a great opportunity to chat to the people who matter.

Labour, Brighton

Following the landslide election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the annual conference was a real test of party unity.

You just had to pick up a newspaper to see Labour unity under the microscope, with senior figures breaking ranks and expressing concern about the leadership’s approach.

It is likely to be difficult to get a united policy position from Labour for a period and this is going to make it difficult to influence the party. However, it might also offer opportunities, for example on airport expansion where the industry’s views match those of Labour’s backbench MPs.

Labour: what you need to know

  1. Labour is to enter a period of ‘deep policy review’ and all positions are up for revision
  2. While the Labour leadership is unlikely to support a third runway at Heathrow, support is growing on the backbenches, and the leadership may allow MPs to vote the way they want.
  3. Labour won’t often act ‘as one’ on key policy matters, so building relationships with backbenchers will be much more important. 

Conservative, Manchester

The mood in Manchester was upbeat and quietly celebratory, but with a sense that the party has to keep its mind on the tasks ahead, with distractions such as the EU referendum and a party leadership race looming.

The key news was that Lord Adonis, a former Labour transport secretary, will head a new National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) tasked with examining the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs. The idea is to take the politics out of decisions.

Initially, the NIC will focus on the Northern Cities, London’s transport and energy.

The subject of airport capacity was never far from the surface, but it was made clear the decision will be made by the cabinet. There is a clear rift developing, given the recent selection of Zac Goldsmith – who objects to Heathrow expansion – as Tory candidate for London mayor.

Current mayor Boris Johnson is also firmly against, but chancellor George Osborne and his allies appear to back Heathrow.

Conservatives: what you need to know

  1. The Conservatives are attempting to reinforce their position in the centre of the political spectrum.
  2. The National Infrastructure Commission and de-politicisation of infrastructure development is likely to be good news for the industry’s long-term infrastructure needs.
  3. The EU referendum debate is going strong in the Conservative Party and the prime minister’s negotiations with Europe will pick up pace through the autumn.

SNP, Aberdeen

The SNP enjoyed unprecedented success, taking all but three of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster in the May general election. However, leader Nicola Sturgeon has a balancing act to perform.

She needs to keep grassroots supporters onside while trying to appeal to those across Scotland who voted ‘no’ to independence.
Sturgeon confirmed independence will not be part of the SNP’s Scottish Parliament campaign in 2016.

Lib Dems, Bournemouth

The Liberal Democrats gathered as a much-reduced force with just eight MPs where they previously had 52.

But with a new leader who is well-liked by the grassroots, a divided Labour Party and a desire to stay in the EU providing unity, the Lib Dems have reason for hope.

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