Although the Labour Party conference that just took place in Liverpool was welcomed by an autumnal wind blowing off the River Mersey, Keir Starmer could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas had arrived early. After the recent electoral gifts laid at his feet by the Tory incumbents in Downing Street, the conference and delegates glowed with new-found confidence and optimism.
First Boris Johnson resigned, following Partygate and the Chris Pincher affair, and this was compounded by the continuing worsening news on the cost of living. Then, after this forced change at the top, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng delivered a badly received ‘mini budget’ with even the IMF urging a rethink. It seemed conference speakers had an embarrassment of political fish to shoot in an overflowing barrel.
To think that a recent poll, late August, by YouGov, showed that the majority of adults thought that Keir Starmer was doing badly as Labour leader. By last Monday, the second day of Labour’s conference, the same polling company reported that Labour had its largest lead over the Conservative party since 2001.
If this reversal of fortunes can mainly be attributed to last Friday’s announcements, the oft quoted “a week is a long time in politics” may need to be amended with a shorter time frame in mind.
Keir’s speech, to a packed auditorium at the Kings Dock, was admittedly to the already converted. However, no heckles or even whispers of dissent emanated from the hall, too often a feature of past Labour conferences.
The leader opened with a pledge to bring in the Hillsborough Law, appropriate in the hosting city, new legislation to hold public authorities to account and to help prevent future injustices.
Sir Keir then went on the attack with an emphasis on the need for fundamental change:
“At moments of uncertainty like this we must provide clear leadership. We must stand with working people. Meet their ambitions for real change. Walk towards a better future. And build a new Britain, together. A Britain that is fairer, greener, more dynamic. And that isn’t afraid to use the power of government to help working people succeed.
“Because we can’t go on like this. What we’ve seen in the past few days has no precedent.
“The Government has lost control of the British economy – and for what? They’ve crashed the pound and for what? Higher interest rates. Higher inflation. Higher borrowing. And for what?
“Not for you. Not for working people. For tax cuts for the richest 1% in our society. Don’t forget. Don’t forgive.”
The listening crowd erupted with applause and cheers, the leader smiled, confident he had won over the vast majority of the party after “all the hard work we’ve put in”.
The speech included the Labour leader’s personal anecdotes from his humble beginnings, an essential ingredient for any prospective leaders speech, even if in the case of Prime Minister Liz Truss it was not entirely accurate.
However, Sir Keir soon moved on to highlight what he says are fundamental ideological differences between the two dominant political parties:
“An unwritten contract is broken. A contract where in return for hard work, you get on. Where your contribution is always respected. And which reaches through the generations to say Britain will be better for your children. That’s the deep cost of Tory failure. They keep talking about aspiration, but they don’t understand how they’ve choked it off for working people. And it gets worse.
“Just look at what they’ve been through. They were told “we are all in this together”, yet they paid for a mess made by bankers. They cried out for economic change in a referendum, but their calls went unanswered. They united to defeat a virus only to see the Government break all the rules that they respected.
“And now, this. The biggest hit to their living standards in a century. And it turns out there is money for the top one percent.”
Criticism of the Tories record on the economy was perhaps the biggest takeaway from the speech. Although Labour’s safe grounds; the NHS, Net Zero, with new pledges for formation of a Great British Energy company, affordable homes, childcare and public services were all given a mention it was the economy which garnered most mentions.
Labour and its leader seem happy now, not only to fight the government on traditionally safe issues, but to challenge the fundamental claims of neoliberal trickle-down economics which underline Liz Truss’s plans.
“That’s why I’ve always said we will fight the Tories on economic growth. Their record is appalling, the worst decade of growth in two centuries. Or as the Chancellor puts it: “a vicious cycle of stagnation”.
“I have to say, as a former prosecutor, it always warms my heart when someone caught bang-to-rights pleads guilty at the first opportunity.”
Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, on the final day of conference, returned to the familiar home ground of Labour, perhaps wishing to reach out to any of those still to be converted from the left wing of the party. John Prescott, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Welfare State, council housing, the National Minimum Wage, Sure Start, the Good Friday Agreement, Civil Partnerships, the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act; they all got a mention and an approval cheer from the crowd before moving on to Labour’s future plans.
Again green issues were put at the front:
“We will tackle the climate crisis head on. We will protect our people and our planet. And we will pull out all the stops to build a fairer and greener Britain, as Keir set out yesterday through our Green Prosperity Plan. We will unleash a green industrial revolution. By reaching 100 per cent clean power by 2030, we will save £93 billion off energy bills.”
Goading the Tories on their economic record was the order of the day, particularly apt as breaking news of the Bank of England’s intervention was arriving across attendees’ smartphones:
“The next election won’t be a choice between a strong economy or a fair society. We don’t have to choose one or the other. Because you can’t have one without the other. An unequal economy is an inefficient one. It’s perhaps the starkest difference between us and the Tories. Never again can we let them pretend they are the patriotic party. I love my country. That’s why I want so much better for it.”
As the delegates departed the conference they emerged to hear news about the financial crisis affecting markets and the sombre Twitter messages from Rachel Reeves, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer :
“People will be deeply worried about the impact of this turmoil on their mortgage, their pension, and their cost of living. This is a crisis made in No. 10 and is the direct result of the Tory government’s reckless actions, which include tax cuts for the richest 1%. Their decisions will cause higher inflation and higher interest rates – and are not a credible plan for growth.
“The Chancellor must make an urgent statement on how he is going to fix the crisis that he has made.”
At the moment the Labour Party are riding high on the failings of the Tory record. The future for all appears uncertain. However, at this particular juncture in time the calm and confidence exhibited in Liverpool offer greater reassurance than the lack of communication from numbers 10 and 11.
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All images: Gary Roberts
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