Coronavirus: Party conferences in a Covid world

(L-R) Sir Ed Davey, Boris Johnson, Sir Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon Image copyright PA Media

It’s just not the same.

Coronavirus has robbed politicos of the chance to mingle in their hundreds at party conferences this autumn.

Debates and speeches won’t feature the familiar laughs, groans and applause. Intrigues will no longer happen late at night in the crowded hotel bars of Birmingham, Liverpool and Brighton.

Virtual conference dates

  • Labour – 19 to 22 September
  • SNP – October – date tbc

Instead, Conservatives, Labourites and Liberal Democrats will have to watch their leaders speak via Zoom (other video-conferencing apps are available).

The parties insist the events will be as vibrant and interesting as possible, but what are the big things to look out for and how much has changed?


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Image caption Sir Keir Starmer is keen to improve his party’s professionalism

The party has changed the name of its conference to Labour Connected, which, it says, is about “people coming together, to create a fairer and better society”.

Held in central London rather than as previously intended in Liverpool, it promises “keynotes, training, rallies, policy discussions, and an interactive virtual expo”.

The training involves tips on how to get more would-be councillors and MPs elected. This, according to a party source, is part of a “conscious” desire to make Labour more professional in its campaigning, following its trouncing by the Conservatives at the last general election.

With Parliament continuing to sit during the delayed conference season, the number of keynote speeches from the shadow cabinet and other senior figures has been reduced, focusing on leader Sir Keir Starmer, his deputy Angela Rayner and shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Angela Rayner will be making a speech and a visit

It will be Sir Keir’s first conference speech since replacing Jeremy Corbyn as leader in April. While lacking the usual razzmattazz – which a source described as a “shame” – it will push a unifying message.

This follows the bitter divisions of the Corbyn years and comes amid murmurings from left-leaning unions such as Unite and the Fire Brigades Union about his own leadership.

Sir Keir, Ms Rayner and Ms Dodds will make visits around the UK during Connected, as opposed to the usual photo-opportunities at hospitals, schools, farms and beaches near conference venues.

Another way the Labour event will differ markedly from normal is that there will be no votes. Delegates’ decisions are part of the party’s policy-making process, but this is not happening this year.

No extra conference is taking place in the spring, so it is likely members will not get to vote on policy again until next autumn, pandemic-permitting.

Liberal Democrats

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Sir Ed Davey wants to make himself better known to voters

Like Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, the Liberal Democrats’ Sir Ed Davey became leader during the coronavirus crisis.

Having urged his party to “wake up and smell the coffee” following three poor general election results in a row, he will be keen to raise his profile with voters and re-establish the Lib Dems as a major voice in discussions on the economy, social policy and international affairs.

Sir Ed’s speech will also deal with his personal background, including his role as a carer for his disabled son and, when he was a teenager, for his terminally ill mother.

He will take part in an hour-long question-and-answer session a couple of days beforehand.

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Image caption Layla Moran is among the Lib Dems’ key speakers

Foreign affairs spokeswoman Layla Moran, who lost to Sir Ed in the leadership contest, will be among the other key speakers, as will Welsh leader Jane Dodds and Scottish leader Willie Rennie.

Unlike Labour, the Lib Dems will still hold votes this year, following debates on subjects including Brexit, the impact of Covid-19 on the elderly and universal basic income.

The party’s constitution states that votes – which make, rather than inform, its policies – must take place at conference. This year’s was meant to happen in Brighton.

Speakers in debates must register for an “electronic card” allowing them to take part and votes will be cast online.

A party spokesman said the 2020 event would be the “mirror image” of the regular shindig, with “as much going on” as usual.


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Image caption Quite a lot has happened since Boris Johnson’s last conference speech

The prime minister has known extraordinary highs and lows in the last 12 months, winning the general election by a landslide and having to deal with coronavirus, as well as becoming seriously ill himself.

All the while, the last stages of the Brexit process are proving to be as controversial as the early ones.

Still, Boris Johnson has a parliamentary majority of almost 80 and his speech was to be his great moment before the Tory faithful.

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Image caption The chancellor will be speaking to fellow Tories via the internet

Instead, in the midst of the pandemic, the conference is promising to be less formal than usual, the party asking members online: “Fancy a FaceTime with Boris? Or a Zoom call with Rishi? Or a chat with the chairman?”

The Conservative conference has, for many years, been a slickly run event at which policy is not set.

The PM and other leading figures will still give speeches and the party is still offering virtual fringe events, as are the Lib Dems and Labour.

And it was reported recently that, instead of offering physical stalls at the conference, which would have taken place in Birmingham, online versions were available for £25,000 each.

But the tone of Mr Johnson’s speech – aggressive or emollient towards his critics and enemies – will be watched most closely, as the country enters another few months of potentially the utmost difficulty.


In recent years, SNP conferences have grown so much that there are only two venues in Scotland large enough to incorporate them – and one of them has been converted into a temporary hospital amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The party normally likes to pack as many members into these events as possible, but things look set to be very different this year with an entirely virtual conference.

The dates have not yet been confirmed, but it will likely fall as usual around the Scottish school holidays in mid-October, when Holyrood is in recess.

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Image caption Nicola Sturgeon will be looking to rally the SNP ahead of the Holyrood elections in 2021

Nicola Sturgeon will be keen to rally her troops, with a Scottish Parliament election looming in 2021 and the party renewing its push for a second independence referendum.

The first minister’s keynote speech will be the centrepiece of the event and will be keenly watched both by rivals and supporters for hints about her plans to secure a fresh vote on Scotland’s future.

The theme of the party’s last conference – also on the eve of an election – was “stop Brexit”, and that other constitutional conundrum is also likely to feature prominently.

The two have become closely intertwined in the political debate in Scotland, and Ms Sturgeon will look to capitalise on that in her bid to return to government in May.

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