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27 September 2021

Is Labour missing a trick on the fuel crisis?

At its conference in Brighton, the party is divided over whether to focus on the petrol rush.

By Anoosh Chakelian

As waves lash Brighton beach, and Labour politicians and members struggle across the windy seafront as they travel between events at the party’s annual conference, the country’s biggest crisis feels a world away.

Empty fuel pumps, traffic at a standstill and frustrated motorists are not top of the agenda for politicians here, as they emerge from a weekend of wrangling over leadership election rules to announce new policies each day.

Insiders are divided over whether to focus on the fuel shortages at all. Some MPs and officials see it as a missed opportunity to hammer the government, while others believe they should not pull the focus away from the party’s key announcements and the crisis should be left simply as “a helpful news story”, and for the government to “shoot itself in the foot”, as one shadow minister put it.

Keir Starmer has accused ministers of a “total lack of planning” regarding lorry driver shortages, suggesting the government should issue 100,000 visas to overseas workers to plug the gap.

“We have to issue enough visas to cover the number of drivers that we need,” he told the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “If there are 100,000 vacancies for drivers in this country and the government is saying we’re going to bring in 5,000 visas, there’s an obvious problem.”

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This was a political gamble, as my colleague Stephen Bush and I reported on Sunday, to weigh in on the immigration debate that surrounds the shortage of HGV drivers.

But is the leadership hammering the Tories on the biggest crisis facing the country enough – and should it even be doing so?

“Any own goal by the Tories should be capitalised by the Labour Party,” says Steve Rotheram, Labour mayor of the Liverpool city region. “I mean, that’s what we’re there for, isn’t it? To provide the alternative to the mess that they’ve made of things… I hope that our front-bench team really starts to take them apart now, not just here, but over the next few months, day after day in parliament so that we can provide that genuine alternative option for people to come back to Labour.”

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Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, expressed hope that Keir Starmer would address the fuel crisis in the leader’s speech on Wednesday (29 September).

“We’ve got the leader’s speech, and I would imagine the leader will address that issue,” he says, having criticised his party for failing to put forward its own policy alternatives, particularly on social care reform.

“But that’s exactly the way I think the party needs to be thinking rather than a bit of an approach that says, ‘OK, we will not commit too much too soon, we’ll set out our plans at the election,’” he says.

“We are living in a slightly different era, where people will only hear criticism from politicians if they [also] say ‘and here’s what I would do differently’… In the era of social media, where it’s more instant, people will say, ‘you’re making that criticism, but what would you do?’ And if you can’t answer that question, the criticism isn’t accepted as valid.

“Labour at this conference needs to be very much beginning to give definition to what it would do differently from the government.”

Wes Streeting, shadow minister for child poverty strategy, describes the queues at petrol stations as “yet another example of government failure”, and adds: “It’s our job to inspire people that there is an alternative.”

Others acknowledge that the footage of closed forecourts and lines of traffic – which have been dominating the news bulletins throughout Labour’s conference so far – risk detracting from the policy announcements.

“It is difficult with big stories out there at the moment,” admits Lucy Powell, shadow housing secretary, who recalls Labour’s conference in 2000, when the party was in government, being “overshadowed” by the fuel crisis that September. She described conference season as “a unique opportunity for an opposition party to get its message across directly into people’s living rooms”, and insists “we have been seeing that despite the crisis happening here”.

She believes the energy and cost-of-living crisis gives the party a chance to communicate to the public related Labour policies on quality jobs, green growth and opposing the upcoming Universal Credit cut. “They will be addressing this cost-of-living crisis that the energy, the petrol, the supply chain crisis is really exacerbating.”

Uncertainty over how to approach the fuel crisis illustrates a wider debate within the party on how to attack the government. This debate has escalated since the “Captain Hindsight” accusations made against Keir Starmer during the pandemic, and “well, what would Labour do?” response to its opposition to Boris Johnson’s social care reforms.

One shadow minister’s team recently received a presentation on how the public best responds to opposition politicians talking about what’s wrong in the country. They heard that Labour is more successful when it can acknowledge a problem and then “signal” its alternative approach, rather than either only attacking the government or relaying detailed policies. Yet restraint from the leader’s office on new announcements (as it tries to avoid a snowballing sequence of uncosted spending commitments) makes it difficult for shadow teams to give those “signals”.

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