On the surface, it would seem that Labour, of the two main parties competing for No 10, has the least work to do this conference season.
The party’s sustained polling advantage, averaging around 17 per cent over the Conservatives, would suggest Keir Starmer should be concerned, merely, with sealing the deal with the electorate this week. Cue a paint-by-numbers conference speech as Starmer variously presents as a government-in-waiting, shuns complacency and repeats rigorously focus-grouped talking points on “security” and “resilience”.
Of course, recent events would appear to strengthen the case for strategic continuity. Last week’s by-election result in Rutherglen and Hamilton West shows Starmer is advancing on all fronts, piecing together the voter coalition he needs to win the next election. A 42-seat “Tartan Wall” (the outcome if Friday’s SNP-to-Labour swing proved uniform in Scotland at the next election), would undoubtedly secure Starmer the keys to No 10 with a sizeable majority.
As for the outcome of the Conservative Party fête last week, Sunak won no “conference bounce” for his party despite throwing caution to the wind and rubbishing “30 years” of political failure. One post-conference poll placed Labour ahead with 45 per cent indicating their intention to vote for the party — compared to the Conservatives on 25 per cent.
But, such good news stories aside, there are other indicators that Starmer still has significant work to do as he returns to the driven atmosphere of Labour Party conference this week. In fact, in that aforementioned poll, Starmer was rated by only 34 per cent as “best prime minister”, compared to Sunak’s 25 per cent.
It comes after new polling data presented to Keir Starmer’s team (and picked up in Robert Shrimsley’s Financial Times column) showed that while 79 per cent of voters answered yes to the question “Does the country need a change from the Conservative party?”, the figure fell to 37 per cent when people were asked if the country needed a change to Labour.
And just in case Starmer needed the message rammed home further, a word cloud presented to him by the BBC on Sunday found voters responded: “nothing”, “not sure” and “don’t know” when asked what words they associated with the Labour leader.
The three phases of ‘Starmerism’
On this point, Starmer will recognise that the apparent incongruence of voters’ aversion towards the Conservatives and simultaneous lack of enthusiasm for him is probably a consequence of Labour’s strategy over the past three years.
This strategy — conducted before a backdrop of Conservative crisis and tailspin — has taken Labour from electoral oblivion back to being a serious entity in a remarkably short period of time; but it has appears to have come at the cost of Starmer’s own political profile.
The approach so far, at every stage conditioned so far by overbearing fears of Conservative attacks, is prosecuted by Starmer’s closest confidant Morgan McSweeney. Patrick Maguire summed up McSweeney’s strategy in a recent piece for the Sunday Times thusly:
Stage one: reform Labour. Sack the Corbynites. Sack Labour’s leader in Scotland. Sack Corbyn. Exclude his followers from parliamentary selections. Rewrite the party’s rulebook to make sure the hard left are excluded from any future leadership contest. Sing the national anthem. Hug the flag. Stage two: expose the failures of the Conservative Party. Stage three: convince voters that Labour has a positive offer of its own. On that, despite the polls, the jury is still out.
This strategy has meant Starmer’s script as Labour leader has been strict indeed: he has trusted that self-contained managerialism will contrast reassuringly with the Conservative party’s perceived chaos. In this way, Sir Keir — ever tetchy and cautious — still offers few commitments, projects but a small target and relies for his political victories on the prime minister of the day getting bogged down in some self-inflicted crisis. Meanwhile, over the past three years, he has ruthlessly exercised any and all power available to him as LOTO: the result is the party’s Corbynite faction is entirely dispossessed of political office and policy influence.
You might retort that Starmer has become more confident in outlining his vision for Britain in recent months. But “Five Missions” and five supplementary set-pieces later, and voters still populate Starmer’s word cloud with “don’t know”, “not sure” and “nothing”.
In fact, the missions, as I wrote at the time, were as much about exploiting perceived Conservative weakness than they were about pronouncing on some totemic new vision for Britain. In February, Starmer opted to carve out five deliberately long-term pledges, in part at least, to rubbish the Conservatives for their perceived myopic and flailing approach to governance pursued through five prime ministers each with variant ideological convictions.
The missions, for what it’s worth, are probably consistently understated in their radicalism — but the feeling now is that Starmerism must transpose into phase three, outlined by Maguire in his Times piece, and “convince voters that Labour has a positive offer of its own”.
So is anyone in Labour privately or publicly lobbying for this bold strategic new departure? Well, yes, Keir Starmer — and very publicly.
When presented with the BBC’s word cloud on Sunday, the Labour leader’s response was surprisingly steely: “That is why this week is so important for us”, he explained, “we come here to this — the last conference before a general election — to set our positive case”.
Now, if we assume Starmer is serious when he talks up a “positive case”, this should mean more than merely embracing dividing lines with Sunak’s Conservatives: indeed, the Labour leader has already signalled his desire to embrace wedge issues, and we saw another example of this over the weekend on the Rwanda deportations plan.
Rather, the feeling now is that Starmer has to announce some policies — if for no other reason than that he believes in them. Only then will he be able to answer that most difficult of questions: “Why Labour?”.
A ‘positive case’ for Labour and Keir Starmer
As we weigh up how significant Labour Party conference 2023 will be to Starmer’s political offering, it is worth noting that previous Sir Keir-fronted fêtes have proved forums for rare forays into radicalism.
In 2021, for example, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves announced Labour’s green energy spending plan. “I will be Britain’s first green chancellor”, Reeves declared as she unveiled proposals for a colossal investment in greener technology, committing the party to “an additional £28 billion of capital investment in our country’s green transition for each and every year of this decade”.
Then, in 2022, Starmer debuted proposals for a new publicly-owned green investment company called “GB Energy” — a state-owned start-up funded through an £8 billion national wealth fund.
Although the Green Prosperity Plan has recently been watered down (the 28 billion figure will now be invested over the course of a parliament rather than annually), Starmer continues to embrace GB Energy. The plan, which has a natural affinity with green politics, also boasts a distinct patriotic edge: in this way, Starmer has announced the firm will be based in Scotland, selling the proposal as a means of strengthening the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Union.
What, therefore, will Labour Party conference 2023 have in store?
‘Sunakian change’ versus ‘Starmerite change’
At the Conservative Party’s annual conference last week, it was clear Rishi Sunak was trying to position himself as the “change candidate” at the next election as he denounced a “30-year” stale political consensus and undertook a significant U-turn on the full HS2 rail programme.
In turn, the prime minister castigated Starmer — an MP since 2015 — as “the walking definition of the 30-year political status quo I am here to end”. And just before Sunak’s speech, leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt said of the Labour leader: “He doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t stand for anything”.
Thus the Conservative Party takes to weaponising uncertainty around Starmer’s vision for their own ends. If Starmer doesn’t want to seize the mantle of “change candidate”, CCHQ calculates, Sunak will.
It means, as Labour conference rumbles on, Starmer is facing his “final frontier” and the last, most important, phase of his long preparation for government: the time for the Labour leader to outline a fuller political approach is now. As Starmer told the Observer in a pre-conference interview: “The battle has hardly begun in terms of this final part of the journey. We need to show the country that we are the change.”
And if Rishi Sunak’s reinvention exposed the limits of his power, Starmer’s can show — after three years of dogged, ruthless leadership in opposition — the extent of his.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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