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Life of the party

The annual Labour Party conference is the highlight of the year for many in the policy world. For all us thinktank people it is like Glastonbury but without the mud.

This year, we all piled into Blackpool to talk about politics, policy reform and the future of the left. We rolled up our policy reports, packed our bags and booked ourselves into a cheap hotel for the week and contributed to debates which will affect the future of our society.

While many of the headlines from conference are made by the speeches of Cabinet members, most of the real work and discussion goes on at the fringe events. These are seminars or medium-sized public meetings organised by thinktanks and their ilk.

With all Government ministers in town for a week, it is a chance to have a genuine dialogue between people from all levels in the Labour Party and with people from the voluntary and private sectors.

A review of the agenda in the main conference hall will show what the party hierarchy want to discuss. In comparison, the range and subject matter of fringe events will show what the party, policy world, voluntary sector and business world want to be on the agenda.

So what was discussed? What could be of particular interests to the financial services industry?

Of course, there are some issues which, while they might interest IFAs, would not be big crowd-pullers. One ambitious company tried to have an event on polarisation last year and, having learnt its lesson, decided not to try again this year. That said, there were more than a few sessions affecting the financial services industry.

At the most generic level, at one of its events, the IPPR asked: “What is business for?”

Many Old Labour activists might still think that business is simply for attacking and having rants about but generally the modern party seems to be engaged with more interesting debates about the role of the private sector in modern Britain.

Much of the debates focused on whether companies should have regard for the wider social concerns as well as purely their bottom line. How could business change its perception in the eyes of the public?

Indeed, the issue of trust in the private sector ran through a number of the fringe events. The New Economics Foundation published a short pamphlet on the need for business to build up greater trust.

While this could be for social reasons, the NEF also argued that there is a strong business case and companies which develop trusted brands will feel the results in their profits.

At the seminar discussing the publication, much of the focus was on financial services companies. Levels of trust remain worryingly low and regaining it is a challenge which must be met.

Treasury select committee chairman John McFall was the main speaker at this seminar. He signalled his belief that measures to build greater trust in financial services providers would be an issue that his committee would be interested in examining in the future. He also spoke at other events on future pension policy. But he was not the most prolific contributor.

That honour fell to Financial Secretary to the Treasury Ruth Kelly. She spoke on the role of the FSA at a Demos event, on the importance of financial inclusion and on the future development of asset-based welfare policies such as the child trust fund and the Saving Gateway at IPPR events.

The importance of tackling financial exclusion was an issue which was discussed at a number of other events. Financial inclusion is not just important in itself but it is also part of the wider agenda of social inclusion and indeed poverty.

The Labour Party has always been interested in tackling poverty but the difference now seems to be that what was once considered a problem for the Government alone to solve, is now a problem which the private sector is being asked to help overcome as well.

This has raised a series of policy questions and challenges for the private sector.

One final issue which cannot go without a mention was the so-called £27bn savings gap. Whatever you might think about this, and there are some who see it as an unhelpful and misleading figure, it is something which has been quoted extensively in recent times. It is still one which appears to be influencing policymakers and the policy world, this year making its appearance at an Age Concern event.

Overall views on party conference often fall into two camps. Some who are closer to the political geek end of the scale love it while others are more cynical. It has even been suggested that party conference sounds like a fine setting for a new TV game show called “I&#39m normal, get me out of here.”

It is certainly a slightly surreal environment but the issues discussed do act as a good barometer of where policy debate has got to and a good opportunity to push new agendas.

It might not be as relaxing and trendy as Glastonbury but it does have more of an impact.

Will Paxton is senior economist at the IPPR

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