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More companies and lobby groups are due to exhibit at Labour’s annual conference than at the Conservatives’ in a reversal from 12 months ago as businesses court the main UK opposition party ahead of the general election.
Forty-three business groups have bought exhibition space — which can cost as much as £16,000 — at Labour’s conference in Liverpool, up from 16 last year, according to calculations by the Financial Times based on exhibitors listed in the party’s handbooks for both years. The number of charities and non-profits exhibiting has more than doubled from 40 to 87.
By contrast, the number of business groups and charities buying stands at Conservative conference, which starts in Manchester on Sunday, has increased marginally compared with 2022, from 26 to 28 and 24 to 30 respectively.
The increase in companies choosing to exhibit at Labour conference reflects growing efforts by business to build ties with Sir Keir Starmer’s party, help influence its policy thinking and get a better sense of the regulatory changes it would make if it won power.
It is also a sign that the two-year charm offensive by Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to convince UK plc that their party — which has a strong lead over the Tories in opinion polls — would create a favourable business environment is beginning to pay off.
With an election due by January 2025, both Labour and the Conservatives are claiming the mantle of “party of business”. One senior executive at a Big Four consultancy said there was “less gnashing of teeth than you might expect” among private equity groups about the prospect of a Labour government, with the party seeking to assuage fears of major tax rises.
Another business adviser said the mood around this year’s Labour conference contrasted with gatherings under Starmer’s hard left predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, “when the exhibition area at the party’s annual conference dwindled to basically ‘Labour friends of Cuba’ and it took 10 minutes to walk around”.
More than 100 companies have sponsored fringe events on the sidelines of the Liverpool conference, including aerospace group Airbus and tech companies Siemens and Amazon.
Property companies, which have generally been vocal in their opposition to the government’s crackdown on rogue landlords and imposition of stricter building regulations after the Grenfell tragedy, are set to turn out in force in Liverpool. They include Thakeham, which is sponsoring two events and exhibiting, Vistry Group and the London Property Alliance.
Sir Craig Oliver, partner at PR firm FGS Global and former director of communications for Tory prime minister David Cameron, said Reeves had launched an effective offensive on business and travelled “absolutely everywhere” to talk to company leaders over the past two years.
But Conservative insiders were adamant that their party remained the party of business, noting that two days during the Manchester conference aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises were sold out, at £220 a ticket, with dozens of groups on the waiting list.
They added that the party’s conference business dinner for 300 corporate figures sold out at an unprecedented rate this year, with all tickets gone by the end of June.
Labour, meanwhile, lowered the price of entry to its own event for SMEs from £400 in May to £75 this month, and has now sold 200 tickets.
Some 187 companies will participate in the Tories’ “business day”, which is aimed at larger groups including Airbus, investment bank Goldman Sachs and steelmaker Liberty Steel, up from 137 last year.
The Conservative party said chief executives who had not previously attended conference were due to attend, including CS Venkatakrishnan of Barclays bank and Mark Allan of real estate group Landsec.
But one senior public relations executive who has advised several clients on party conferences said he believed big institutions were not sending chief executives to Tory conference in the same way they once did.
He pointed to “a bit of general fatigue” about the government’s “anti-business policies”, including the move to scrap net zero pledges and reports that the HS2 rail project will be scaled back.
The boss of one large company said: “If you pin me to the wall and made me go to one, I’d only go to Labour.”
Labour said: “At this year’s conference, we will be setting out how a mission-driven Labour government will deliver economic growth across all parts of the country and give Britain its future back.”