Party conferences can often be quite tense affairs. Politicians are rushed off their feet, delegates of different views are often scrapping over motions, and journalists are competing for the next scoop – or slipup – from Party figures.
The Labour Party, quite famously, has a reputation for internecine and factional warfare. When Sir Keir Starmer succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Party in 2020, Labour had spent 10 years in opposition and the Party was drained, emotionally and financially, from the fallout of the 2019 General Election – Labour’s biggest election defeat in more than 80 years.
In Liverpool this year though, there was a sense that Labour was finally emerging from the agonising lows of the last 12 years. Delegates and members of the media both agreed the mood was different this year.
Here’s five things we learnt from this year’s Labour Party conference.
A Party buoyed by confidence
Buoyed by troubles plaguing Liz Truss’ three-week-old Government, the Party acted with a newfound swagger. Labour MPs and activists alike warned against complacency, but the step-change from last year’s conference was undeniable.
On Tuesday, spirits were lifted further by a YouGov poll showing a 17-point Labour lead – the largest enjoyed by the Party since 2001. A poll lead of this nature is significant, but with likely another two years until the next election, Labour cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
In another attempt to draw dividing lines with the Tories, Starmer placed Labour’s tanks firmly on their lawn. By announcing a points-based immigration system and 70% target for homeownership, Labour look increasingly comfortable fighting on traditionally Conservative issues.
Blunders kept to a minimum and quickly dealt with
Many commentators have spoken of Starmer’s need to marginalise the ‘Corbynite left’. And it appears, largely, that he has finally achieved that. The noise from his staunchest critics appeared almost entirely muted, and even ‘The World Transformed’ – a separate conference for left-wing activists which is often problematic for the Party – was barely visible.
The worst moment of the conference came when Dr Rupa Huq, MP for Ealing Central and Acton, called the Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, “superficially” black. In previous years, Huq’s inexcusable and offensive comments would have dominated coverage and affected Labour’s ability to project a readiness for office. This year, the issue was dealt with quickly and Huq had the whip removed on Tuesday afternoon.
Green key to growth
Liz Truss’ pitch to the Conservative membership was entirely centred around economic growth. Growth would be pursued at all costs with an initial package of untargeted tax cuts funded by borrowing. The results of the ‘mini-Budget’ have been alarming, with the value of sterling plummeting and the IMF reacting by launching a stinging attack on the UK’s fiscal policy and a request for it to “re-evaluate” planned tax cuts.
Starmer has therefore been given the opportunity to set out how Labour would “fight the Tories on economic growth.” In the first year of a Labour Government, Starmer said the Party would create a new, publicly-owned energy generation company, which would capitalise on opportunities in clean British power. This underlines just how much Starmer is banking on putting green at the core of Labour’s growth mission. Foreign ownership stakes in some of the UK’s most prized clean energy assets were criticised as a failure of Government. Not only would it establish the UK as a clean energy superpower, Labour argued, but it would guarantee its long-term energy security.
Ideological ambiguity makes way for ideological confidence
Since he was elected leader, Starmer has been accused by many of not standing for anything – his toughest critics have even labelled his leadership as ‘Tory-lite’. Others, however, argued that for Starmer to really set out his stall as leader he would need to regain the support of those who had shunned Labour in recent years. Off the back of this year’s conference, the latter appears nearer the truth.
Announcements that Labour would renationalise the railways, or create a publicly owned energy generation company, are pledges we’d often consider ‘left-wing’. His speech was sensible and depicted a leader growing in confidence – if lacking the radicalism some Labour activists would want. The ideological ambiguity which he has so often been criticised for subsided, and for the first time Starmer appeared to lay out a coherent policy platform which would underpin his Labour Government.
Business backing Labour?
The return of large corporate sponsors this year suggests two things. One – that business confidence in a Starmer Government is growing, and two – businesses are increasingly preparing themselves for life under a Labour Government. As The Guardian’s Pippa Crerar put it, there was a “palpable sense of power back in the room for the first time in years.”
The Bloomberg drinks reception was packed with commercial visitors and journalists, something which would have been hard to believe in recent years. While the business community’s growing interest in Labour will be pleasing, it’s important the Party does not get ahead of itself. Presenting a future Labour Government as more trustworthy or less chaotic than the Conservatives should not be too tall an order for anyone at the moment – the key will be maintaining this momentum into the next General Election.