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Around the Conferences 2023 - Liberal Democrats

Over the next few weeks AELP will have a presence at each of the main annual political party conferences in England. These are the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth, Conservatives in Manchester and Labour in Liverpool. This is all part of our efforts to shift the dial politically on some of our major concerns, such as the financial health of the sector and the need for a national skills strategy. This is an important time of the year politically, so I wanted to give an inside track on what we saw and heard at the conference, and how we are continuing to try and influence policy.

This weekend I represented AELP at the Liberal Democrat Conference. The conference was the Liberal Democrats' first since 2019 and took place against the backdrop of rising hope the that they will be able to win a significant number of seats at the next general election. This conference is always a more intimate affair than the other two, with a less packed schedule, and more laid-back atmosphere.

While the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to form the next government, they will be a significant and influential group in parliament – especially if no single party is able to gain a majority of seats. It is for this reason that it is important that AELP engages the key figures in the party and can help influence its policy direction. 

We know that the priority areas in education for the Liberal Democrats are early years, childcare and schools, and this view has not changed after this conference. In her speech, Education Spokesperson Munira Wilson MP made big announcements on tutoring and on mental health in schools, with the focus rarely drifting to skills.

She called for tutoring to become a permanent fixture in England’s schools, with £390 million a year for intensive small-group sessions for students who have fallen behind in class. She also called on the government to triple tax for social media firms to fund a dedicated mental health professional in every school in England.

Meanwhile, throughout conference members were voting on policies for the pre-election manifesto. A number of these related to skills, most of which are hangovers from the last election manifesto. For example, the Liberal Democrats are continuing to call for: more flex in the apprenticeship levy, with it being expanded in scope to a Skills and Training Levy; a commitment to increase apprenticeship pay to “at least the minimum wage”; and a £10,000 skills wallet for adults.

There was also a strong general agreement across the conference that the UK needs to return to the industrial strategy approach, with strong collaboration between business, education and transport. This ties in nicely with AELP’s position on the need for a national skills strategy, particularly with influential voices in the party agreeing that the skills system is very ‘fragmented’.

Beyond skills perhaps the biggest theme was how the party is pitching itself. The main focus of criticism across the weekend was the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister, revealing their main targets are the Conservatives ‘Blue Wall’ seats in the south, rather than competing with Labour.

The big announcement prior to the conference was the promise of a £5 billion a year social care plan, while during his leaders' speech Sir Ed Davey called for a legal right to cancer treatment within two months. Of course, as with all of these grand plans and policies, without a skilled workforce, none of this will be achieved. This is one of the central points we need to continue getting across. Skills investment is an investment in our capacity to get things done.

As for Bournemouth, it's very nice, well worth a visit. Next week AELP will be going to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. We will be in partnership with the Association of Colleges and City & Guilds under the Future Skills Coalition, representing the skills sector with one voice. We have a whole range of events on at our Skills Hub, so if you happen to find yourself at a party conference please come along.

Around the Conferences 2023 - Liberal Democrats

By AELP’s Public Affairs Manager – Ciaran Roche

Last published: 28/09/2023