I was so pleased to attend the first in a regular series of new mini conferences hosted by Conservative Home today. We are all very aware of the longstanding, excellent, and diverse party conference fringe programme led by CEO Mark Wallace, Paul Goodman and their colleagues.
The ‘Future of Jobs Conference’ held at the beautiful Royal Society of the Arts was no exception and sought to offer a new and regular ‘short-sharp’ conference programme – usually half a day – this will make sure the Conservative Home team continue to deliver thought-provoking and interesting events all year round. I am particularly supportive of their desire to make sure we do not lose focus on policy – especially that relating to social mobility and ‘levelling-up’. At a time when it seems Government policy is increasingly paralysed and held hostage to the daily media narrative, clarity is key.
“Opportunity is the most precious thing”
We started with former Downing Street adviser, Jimmy McLoughlin OBE, and his well-known ‘Jimmy’s Podcast’ interviewing the past Minister and tireless social justice campaigner Justine Greening. Hailing from Rotherham in my home patch of South Yorkshire, I am always so impressed at how ‘in touch’ and common-sense she is. Greening makes it her priority to highlight the key work issues facing everyday citizens, particularly young people from the most socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
Key comments by Justine Greening in this wide-ranging and deeply interesting interview were that “opportunity is the most precious thing in the world – true for young people from both Nigeria to Rotherham” and that “talent throughout the country is spread evenly – but opportunity is not”. Wise words indeed. Greening remains passionately focused on driving the levelling-up agenda across the country.
Workers and 'One Nation'
The second session, almost in homage to the Rt. Hon. Robert Halfon MP and his well-known ‘ladder of opportunity’, focused on how the Conservatives might truly become the ‘Workers’ Party’. Chaired by Conservative Home CEO, Mark Wallace, the panel consisted of Jack Lopresti MP, Jade Marsden (former parliamentary candidate for Liverpool City Region), and Matthew Elliott, now of Shore Capital but renowned in centre-right circles for his dynamic leadership of the Vote Leave campaign.
A wide ranging and informed debate was held with a clear focus on ‘One Nation Conservatism’ seeking to find a better balance between a dedicated worker’s approach, and the best possible relationship with business – including (perhaps controversially) big multinational business. I was especially interested to hear Lopresti highlight that the Government has created nearly 10 million apprenticeships since 2010 – no small achievement at all. Matthew Elliott quite rightly referred to the ‘baked-in’ tension between the pressures of rising salaries, and the fact that workers’ pay will undoubtedly be unable to keep pace with ever-rising inflation.
These are difficult times indeed, particularly for those on the very lowest incomes. The lack of easy answers are not readily apparent – the challenge only grows.
The role of big business and skill development
The conference concluded with the keynote speech from the Rt. Hon. Nadhim Zahawi MP, Secretary of State for Education. He began his presentation by highlighting that he was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and spent the first decade of his life under a genocidal dictatorship – an early upbringing, which has no doubt shaped his private and political career to date.
Zahawi focused on the fact that skills for a modern UK society could not flourish without the support of big business. He is unabashed that without great employers and an economy delivering growth, and creating wealth, these educational programmes that will deliver success cannot be funded and well-sustained.
Building on the excellent work of the Labour Peer, the Rt. Hon. Lord Sainsbury, Zahawi reflected on the introduction of T-Levels – the equivalent of 3 A-Levels – allowing a hands-on experience for young people and a different route into the fast-developing world of work for all – whatever your background. Zahawi is passionate about his ‘Lifelong Loan Entitlement’ – in real money £36,000 for each and every person – supporting workers, both young and older, to upskill, retrain and reskill – so all workers can meet the ever-changing needs of our dynamic economy.
He urged company bosses to think differently about the people that they seek to employ. It should no longer be a requirement for success that the world of work only relies on university graduates.
Zahawi is passionate about helping people – of all ages – to retrain and re-skill; “If we are to make a success of levelling-up – we must and will invest in people. This country is the greatest country in the world, it helped me to make my dreams come true – and my journey is to help everyone achieve their dreams too!”
The keynote speech ended with an interesting question and answer session. Congratulations to the whole Conservative Home team – this was a perfectly balanced conference with an excellent variety of speaker and panel representation. An event of such length keeps the focus for the discussion tight and well-centred – this really does bode well for future such mini-conferences in the months ahead.