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We're Right Here campaigners with Andy Burnham

Party conferences 2023: what did they mean for social connection?

Posted by The Cares Family on 16th October 2023

Please note: this post is 8 months old and The Cares Family is no longer operational. This post is shared for information only

"We must win the war against the hoarders in Westminster. Give power back and put communities in control. That’s mission government."

Those were the words of Labour leader Keir Starmer in his party conference speech last Tuesday, as he called for more power to be given to the local people who know their areas best. Starmer’s words followed an announcement that Labour was committed to a big expansion of devolution, including new powers over housing, skills, energy and transport for local areas.

But community power has not just been Labour’s terrain during party conference season. It has been an issue of cross-party focus, and the subject of major announcements and fringe event discussions at both the Conservative conference in Manchester and Labour’s Liverpool showpiece.

This was kick-started by the government’s announcement of £1.1bn funding for 55 towns across the country to invest in local people’s priorities. Panel discussions at both Conservative and Labour conferences were alive with talk about how communities could be better empowered. The fact that that we are one of the most centralised countries in Europe was referenced constantly by MPs and think tanks on both sides of the political spectrum.

More powerful communities are more connected communities

Community power is central to The Cares Family’s overarching mission to strengthen social connection, as we set out in a recent blog. And it’s why we have joined with community leaders from across the country and national organisations including Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Locality and Power to Change to co-found and help lead the We’re Right Here campaign for a Community Power Act.

The party conferences were a brilliant opportunity to build support behind the campaign and make its community leaders the star of the show, not the politicians. Labour’s Shadow Minister for Devolution, Paula Barker MP, described fellow panellist Annoushka Deighton, who helped set up community-owned Stretford Public Hall, as the most inspirational she had sat alongside in her role.

At Labour conference, We’re Right Here’s Sacha Bedding and Inayat Omarji brilliantly shared their stories of community power from Hartlepool and Bolton respectively, on panels about ‘Place, power and local growth’, and ‘What matters more: a strong state or strong communities?’ It was great to hear Paula Barker re-affirm Labour’s commitment to a Community Right to Buy – one of the key pillars of We’re Right Here’s Community Power Act proposal – and call for more community ownership.

At Conservative conference, Claude Hendrickson, from Leeds, spoke to MPs including Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Housing Minister Rachael McLean, and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, among many others.

Tackling loneliness as part of a preventative agenda

Though community power was an overriding theme of both party conferences, there were other important ways that social connection featured. As we set out in The Cares Family’s ‘Building Connection: A Manifesto', there are a number of key steps the next government can take to strengthen social connection, and giving power to communities is just one of them.

At the Fabian Society and British Red Cross’ event on tackling loneliness, we heard from Kim Leadbeater MP about how creating more connected communities should lie at the heart of Labour's health and wellbeing prevention agenda. It was a great opportunity to build support behind the Call to Action that  The Cares Family and 13 other organisations published recently, including for a new loneliness strategy, a dedicated minister in this area, and local action plans.

It was very noticeable at the event that MPs and organisations were starting to talk more about creating connections throughout society and not only about supporting those people who are lonely; a shift in language that we have been advocating for.

At a Conservative conference event on social cohesion organised by the thinktank Bright Blue and the Together coalition, a number of speakers pointed to the need for better data and evidence to achieve this more connected society. For example, measuring social connection more closely at the local level, but also having a national centre to bring evidence together and share learnings.

This thinking was at the core of our manifesto proposal for a new Centre for Social Connection to support community leaders across the country.

Community power and prevention come to the fore

So there emerged two predominant agendas at this year’s party conferences relating to our mission of a more socially connected country. One is more individually focused and medicalised, highlighting social connection as part of a preventative health agenda that keeps us all well for longer, and saves costs for the NHS. The other is about local communities, handing over powers from Westminster to the people who know their areas best, and fighting for ‘double devolution’.

Both agendas are likely to feature strongly as we head into election year, presenting exciting opportunities for The Cares Family and our partners to engage with the main political parties and continue making the case for the more connected country we all want to see.

Want to find out more?

Explore our Campaigns and Policy work, including our recently published Manifesto outlining five bold policy ideas to strengthen social connection in the UK.