With Party Conference season upon us, attention is turning towards each political party’s policy platform. Additionally, with a general election likely next year, or latest January 2025, this set of conferences could be the last chance for each political party, from parliamentarians to activists, to coalesce and debate policy positions before voters go to the polls and decide who will form the next government.
Although manifestos are not published until the general election campaign has begun, build-up and signalling of what will be included is well underway. Manifestos are already being developed but the two main parties have quite different approaches. The Conservative Party manifesto is created in a top-down structure, with the Prime Minister, key advisors, Cabinet Ministers, and a small number of influential members of the parliamentary party creating the document.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party manifesto development involves the party’s membership. The first step of the Labour manifesto has already happened; the National Policy Forum Consultation, which was an opportunity for members, supporters, and stakeholders to offer their opinions on the policies they would like to see Labour implement if they win the election, has now closed and its report has since been published internally. This report will now be utilised by leaders within the party to formulate the final manifesto.
Here, we look at what could be in both the Conservative Party manifesto and the Labour Party manifesto relating to the skills system and apprenticeship policy.
Conservative Party Manifesto
Since becoming Prime Minister almost one year ago, Rishi Sunak has made it his priority to settle the political and economic turmoil of 2022. In this vein, the Prime Minister has set out his key five ambitions for government, one of which is to grow the economy and create better-paying jobs. As part of the Prime Minister and the Government’s ambitions to grow the economy, they have identified key growth sectors, which they want to strengthen in the UK, those are digital technology, green industries, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and the creative industries.
With a desire to grow and strengthen these industries, it seems likely that the Conservative manifesto will include commitments to invest more heavily in training that would strengthen the workforce in these sectors, equipping with them the necessary knowledge and skills for these evolving industries. The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, an important figure within the party, has signalled that high-quality apprenticeships are a priority for her, and so a commitment to creating more apprenticeships can be expected in the Conservative manifesto.
It also seems likely that a Conservative manifesto would keep, but reform the apprenticeship levy. The think tank Policy Exchange recently published a paper, ‘Reforming the Apprenticeship Levy’ which called for greater flexibility to invest in employer-relevant skills and more support for young people and SMEs and could inform the Conservative approach to reforming the levy.
Another recent development that may signal the direction of the Conservative’s approach to further and higher education, is the recent publication of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) policy paper. This policy will provide individuals taking a Level 4 to 6 course, or high-value technical course modules at Level 4 to Level 5, with access to a maintenance loan and up to £37,000 in tuition fees. This will provide greater flexibility and allow more people to return or enter education at different stages of their careers. This more flexible approach suggests that the Conservative manifesto could include more policies to help learners return to the education system to re-skill and up-skill.
Labour Party Manifesto
Although Labour has been shying away from making sweeping policy proclamations, the Party’s policy platform is beginning to take shape, particularly following its internal National Policy Forum report.
One key policy proposal from the report, is to reform the Apprenticeships Levy into a ‘Growth and Skills Levy’ that will work for every region and nation. This proposal would allow businesses to spend up to half of their levy contributions on a much wider array of skills training than is currently possible, including modular learning and skills bootcamps.
Additionally, we expect to see Labour establish a new expert body – Skills England – which will oversee skills policy across England. We expect Skills England will be responsible for creating and monitoring the list of approved non-apprenticeship courses businesses can spend Growth and Skills Levy money on. These courses will be expected to align with Labour’s wider ambitions for upskilling the country and transitioning to a net zero economy, as set out in the Party’s Industrial Strategy, the report of the Council of Skills Advisors and the Green Prosperity Plan.
The Party has also signalled that it believes more work needs to be done with universities to develop skills through higher education. This is part of wider efforts to plug the skills gap. The National Policy Forum signalled that Labour would call on higher education institutes to work more closely within their local communities and with local businesses to help create thriving and dynamic local economies. In turn, this could mean a commitment to the expansion of degree apprenticeships, which will promote further integration between further education and higher education, creating a more cohesive system which unites all facets of the education sector.
Watch this space
This conference season likely signals what future manifestos hold, shaping much rhetoric for the upcoming general election. With both main political parties keen to differentiate themselves and sell their positions to voters, industry, and the education sector, we expect to see some significant developments over the next few weeks. Watch this space for an update on the directions of travel.