8 Sporting Reflections from the Annual Conservative Conference 2014
Posted: Tue, 07 Oct 2014 11:05
As in Manchester with the Labour Party the week before, The Sports Think Tank were present in Birmingham at the Conservative party conference to witness the party's plans for sport in the next parliament and to see some partner organisations meeting and debating with Minister of Sport, Helen Grant MP.
1. Unlike in Manchester the topic of sport received some significant mention on the main stage. Though sport has slipped down the agenda since the London Olympics, moving the DCMS agenda to the main conference stage as an integrated part of the Tories' economy session that culminated in the Chancellor's speech, brought sport to the centre stage. Sajid Javid's keynote speech, focused on his priorities including the role of major events such as the Tour de France, Olympics and Commonwealth Games in boosting our the tourism industry, by providing a big draw to foreigners visiting the UK and the knock-on positive effects on the economy were hailed as a triumph for the nation.
2. The second surprising but notable mention of sport came from guest speaker Victoria Pendleton, who conferred the importance of sport for all as a part of the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan's speech. Pendleton spoke about sport and its social impact to build character, confidence and resilience that would help with employment and supported the idea that every child should have access to PE at school, because it bridges the gap between socio-economic status, race, gender, ethnicity and disability. Does this framing of sport in an education context signal a shift away from the DCMS towards a stronger cross-departmental approach to sport?
3. In terms of content, there was little sport-related discussion to be found in the exhibition or the fringe. Cycling was represented and debated in a fringe event, but that was within a transportation context. The most significant contribution was once again, that of Sports Leaders UK, Street Games, The English Federation of Disability Sport and the Association for Physical Education. This group hosted Helen Grant at two events to discuss inclusivity for young people in sport and raising the profile of the important role volunteering has for young people as they mature. Once again these sessions chimed well with the Tory agenda both at local and national level.
4. While Helen Grant did not address the conference this year (as was the case with her predecessor Hugh Roberson), in the fringe events she was a passionate advocate of sport's role in wider society where it can have a significant impact. She indicated willingness to engage in a cross-sector and cross-departmental approach to all aspects of sport. She vowed to keep fighting for funding for community sport and she rightly expected NGBs to work hard to attract those who don't play sport to do so, and where they didn't she would direct money to organisations that did. She indicated in her response to a question from the floor that she is a strong advocate of 3G as a solution to the sports pitches problem.
5. Helen Grant's main message in the sport and inclusivity debate is that the gender gap in sport participation at the moment is unacceptable and, while the tide is starting to turn, more must be done to get more women and girls into sport and physical activity. Helen praised the work of Sky and BT Sport in devoting more time to the coverage of women's sport on television. This issue of equality will resonate with many in other sectors and is a prominent theme in politics across other areas of government policy.
6. Both Helen Grant and the PM's former advisor on youth, Shaun Bailey both advocated the significant role that sport had as a route into volunteering and employment. With the Conservatives announcing 3 million new apprenticeships to support young people into employment sport has an opportunity to play its part especially amongst disadvantaged communities. From discussions with Chief Whip Sir George Young at the event, further work is needed to join this up, especially with other initiatives such as the National Citizenship Scheme which the Tories extended to all young people. Engaging employers in terms of opportunities (creating a youth market), was also seen to as key to making young people ready for work, in terms of leadership and 'soft skills', and also funding sports programmes.
7. There also remain however, serious public funding issues both at local authority and central government levels. The Chancellor was clear that the deficit must be reduced and further £25bn of cuts were needed in the next parliament: this on top of already heavily reduced budgets across most of Government. Only time will tell where a new Tory Government would look for savings but sport could easily be included especially as participations rates are not increasing at the rate expected. Some Tory councillors saw the likelihood of redirecting funding to sport provision through the increasing onus on councils to lead on public health. This in theory at least, provides some indication that any future cuts in the sports budget could be mitigated by a policy of preventative health with funding from public health budgets.
8. Despite sport having some priority at conference there are as yet no specific concrete sports policy commitments from the Conservatives, as there are in other areas. It maybe too early to read anything significant into the positioning of sport's contribution at conference to the economy and education. What was encouraging however, was the positive and high-level recognition of the role of sport in society to build character and make a meaningful contribution across a wide range of areas of public policy. We await the Tories manifesto with interest.
Luke Regan and Mark Balcar