Keir Starmer’s Labour is Starting to Believe it is Heading for Government
Hope is overcoming fear for Labour delegates in Liverpool as they watch Liz Truss’ Government begin to implode just weeks after its inception, reports Adam Bienkov
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After 12 years in opposition, a strange new emotion is starting to take hold of delegates at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool: hope.
Across convention halls, bars and fringe rooms, party members are for the first time, since losing office in 2010, actually starting to believe that their time may be about to come again.
A YouGov poll on Monday found that Labour now has its largest lead over the Conservatives for decades. If repeated at a general election, Keir Starmer’s party would be projected to win a 182-seat majority. Tory MPs losing their seats would include Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith, Penny Mordaunt, Steve Baker, Grant Shapps, Andrea Leadsom, Andrea Jenkyns and Dominic Raab.
Such a victory would be an electoral wipeout on a scale even bigger than Tony Blair managed in 1997 and would be an extraordinary turnaround for the party, just a few short years after it suffered a humiliating general election defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson.
Yet as the economy teeters on the edge of disaster under Liz Truss, Labour delegates are not just starting to believe they are heading for Government, they are now beginning to prepare for what they will actually do when they get there.
MPs and Labour members are proposing bold solutions for everything from the climate crisis to devolution and the NHS. Not all of these proposals may appear particularly radical to some.
The Labour left’s view of Starmer, that he is too timid and fearful of drawing clear lines with the Conservatives, is still held by many here in Liverpool. Starmer’s reluctance to endorse a conference motion calling for the party to back proportional representation in future elections, shows that party members are still looking for a bigger agenda from their leader than they are yet getting.
But after a couple of weeks in which the Truss Government has embarked on a calamitous experiment in hard-right economic theory, there are signs that the party is starting to gain the sort of political confidence that it has previously lacked.
Signs of this began on Sunday when Starmer announced Labour’s bold plans to massively invest in green energy, before the Shadow Transport Secretary on Monday committed the party to nationalising the UK’s railway networks. Elsewhere, Shadow Levelling-Up Secretary Lisa Nandy told Byline Times that the party plans to hand considerable new powers to city mayors and other regional leaders, including the ability to raise their own taxes.
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None of these measures are arguably a significant departure for the party, and indeed in some cases do not even go as far as pledges made under Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. However, the difference is that, for the first time since I started coming to these conferences under Ed Miliband’s leadership, it feels like the party has a real chance, if not outright likelihood, of actually enacting these policies in office. And that really does matter.
After 12 years of crippling austerity under David Cameron, Brexit chaos and inertia under Theresa May, divisive populism and lies under Boris Johnson, and now a hard-right and extreme economic agenda under Liz Truss, the possibility of a government taking even the smallest and simplest of steps to improve public services, tackle climate change and stabilise the economy feels, by contrast, like a genuinely radical departure.
Has Starmer Made his Own Luck?
In some ways, Keir Starmer has been incredibly lucky. For years, the Conservatives and their supporters in the press successfully portrayed Labour as reckless and irresponsible political hardliners. Although now regularly mocked on social media, David Cameron’s tweet warning of “chaos under Ed Miliband” was emblematic of a successful strategy of sowing doubt in voters’ minds about putting their trust back in the Labour Party.
But in just a few short years, the Conservative Party has completely abandoned that advantage, and instead succeeded in making Starmer’s party appear to be the most obviously responsible choice for worried voters at the next election.
As Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting pithily put it to the BBC ahead of Starmer’s conference speech on Tuesday: “The risk now isn’t change with Labour, it’s continuity with the Conservatives.”
Doubts will continue to remain about Labour among many of its natural supporters. The almost complete marginalisation of the left of the party, which has been very evident at this year’s conference, is at total odds with the platform which Starmer successfully stood on in order to become leader.
After years in which lying in office became the default behaviour under Boris Johnson, it is concerning that the man who is now most likely to become our next prime minister, stood for leader on a prospectus, large parts of which he has since abandoned.
But it is also possible that those shouting betrayal at Starmer may be speaking too soon. Like Tony Blair, whose words Keir Starmer will echo in his speech today, it is possible that the reality of a Starmer Government may be significantly more radical than its presentation may suggest.
As the possibility of a majority Labour Government continues to shift from an outside chance towards a racing certainty, it is possible that an increasingly confident Starmer operation may choose to shed more of the political caution and timidity which so defined the early years of his leadership.
It is also debatable whether the shift in Labour’s fortunes is due more to luck than judgement. Starmer’s former campaigns advisor Simon Fletcher has argued in these pages that the party risks attempting to win the next election by default, rather than through its own choices.
It is unarguably the case that Starmer has been lucky. At Labour’s conference this time last year, the party was well behind in the polls and there were even whispers of an imminent leadership challenge against him. That all changed after Boris Johnson chose to blow up his own Government over the ‘Partygate’ scandal and other matters, and after his successor chose to blow up the actual economy.
Starmer’s own relatively poor approval ratings also give credence to the argument that the recent surge in support for his party may have more to do with his luck in facing an imploding government, than in any individual strategic decisions he has made.
Yet in politics, as in life, luck only gets you so far. In order to win the next general election, the Labour Leader will have had to overcome a historically large Conservative majority in the face of a political press, which even now, remains largely in favour of the governing party. Even with the greatest luck in the world, these are not easy tasks and his party may fall short once again.
But while fear of a fifth defeat still grips delegates here in Liverpool, it is increasingly being replaced by hope instead. After 12 years of a chaotic and increasingly reckless Conservative Government, the Labour Party is beginning to set out a genuine alternative.
And while for some in Liverpool that alternative may seem too mild and too timid, for the first time in more than a decade, it is an alternative which the party actually looks likely to put into action.
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