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Party Conference Roundup 2021: what HR needs to know


This year’s Labour and Conservative party conferences have now come to an end. Back to in-person events for the first time in almost two years, the two parties set out their competing visions for a post-COVID world.

High-wage jobs

Both party leaders pledged to help create high-wage jobs as part of a COVID recovery, following plenty of press scrutiny of low wage jobs and the dangers of in-work-poverty.

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Labour leader Keir Starmer promised job-creation investment in a range of sectors, including pharmaceuticals, materials, defence, chemical engineering, consumer goods, environmental technology, transport and biotechnology. He pointed out that 5.7 million people are in insecure, low-paid work in the UK. 

He emphasised that priority for this renaissance in British manufacturing would be in disadvantaged towns, particularly those that had lost their traditional manufacturing capacity.

Prime minister Boris Johnson countered by saying that wages were rising fastest for those on low incomes, attributing this to an economic recovery powered by the COVID vaccination programme.

This sharp rise in wages is, however, limited to certain sectors, such as logistics, and is driven by companies competing for specialist labour.

However Johnson did acknowledge rising inequality as a result of the pandemic.

He said: “We have one of the most imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies of all the richer countries."

These inequalities would, he said, be targeted by ‘leveling up’, with the goal of “a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy.”


Increase in mental health professionals

Starmer pledged that Labour would recruit 150,000 new mental health professionals, as part of the process of shifting emphasis in the NHS from curative medicine towards preventative and care-based provision.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “We support measures that shine a light on the need to put mental and physical health on the same footing, and that will help trusts to tackle the huge care backlog in mental health services – nearly 1.6 million people are waiting for some kind of care or treatment for a mental health condition. 

"Failing to support mental health services now risks storing up significant problems for the future, to the detriment of individuals, their families, wider society and the economy. This must not be allowed to happen."


Spending increases for employment programmes

Chancellor Rishi Sunak set out his vision of an economy driven by science, technology and innovation, but unlike Starmer, he ruled out borrowing as “immoral.” 

The government’s balance sheet would instead be kept steady by taxation.

“I want tax cuts but in order to do that our public finances must be put back on a sustainable footing,” he said.

The chancellor also announced a £500 million increase in spending on employment programmes, which will include the expansion of the Kickstart scheme and Job Entry Targeted Support (JETS).

Chris Sanderson, CEO of hospitality recruitment app Limber, said: “The zeitgeist of the UK jobs market has changed fundamentally since the pandemic and unless the government captures it, any support schemes will be in vain. 

“The chancellor should encourage employers to embrace flexibility and ditch the rigid work days and shift patterns of old that people of all ages are increasingly shunning.”

Sunak also announced 2,000 elite AI scholarships, and to double the number of Turing fellowships, seeking to train and retain AI talent in the UK workforce. 


Return to the workplace

The prime minister urged a return to the workplace, saying he was confident that there would not be another wave of COVID large enough to force a work from home order.

However Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, argued that more flexibility would be a better approach. 

He said: “Being in the office is no guarantee of productivity.To build back better we need a more flexible approach to work.

“Employers need to embrace new ways of working that help employees perform at their best. It’s not a case of home or office working, as most people want a combination of both, where this is possible.

“It’s in organisations’ interests to provide more flexible ways of working as it can support their ability to attract and retain a more diverse workforce at a time when many firms are facing skill and labour shortages.”


Green New Deal

Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves pledged to be the first ‘green chancellor’ of Britain, announcing a plan of £28 billion of investment in green initiatives annually if the party were to gain power. 

The money would form the core of an effort to create green jobs, and power the UK’s recovery from COVID.

Luke Murphy, head of the Environmental Justice Commission at the think tank IPPR, welcomed the news.

He said: “The costs of inaction on the climate crisis are far greater than the investment needed to deliver net zero.

“If enacted, this investment would put the UK on the fast-track to deliver net zero and realise the many opportunities from jobs to levelling up that the climate transition can offer.”