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10 October 2023

Keir Starmer’s speech made the Tories look like the opposition

The hopes that Rishi Sunak’s allies had for conference season have been wholly disappointed.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s been an odd conference season. As a cheerful public affairs staffer, who has attended both party conferences for many years, put it to me last night in a crammed cocktail bar in Liverpool: “Manchester felt like the conference of a party in opposition – this feels like the conference of a party in government.”

The vibe at this year’s annual Labour gathering has been that it is only a matter of time. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve heard in queues for events (and the queues have been sizeable) giddily referring to members of Keir Starmer’s top team by their presumed future titles: the health secretary, the education secretary, the first female chancellor. No one has accidentally called Starmer prime minister yet, but from the crowds not just to the hall where he gave his leader’s speech but even to the overflow TV room, you’d think the small matter of winning an election was a formality. 

Accusations of complacency aside, for the Conservatives this presents a challenge. Prior to conference season, there was a feeling in the party that, while the polls were not in their favour, there was still a chance to turn things around. Last year’s conference, held in the midst of Liz Truss’s chaotic premiership, had been an unmitigated disaster that saw Labour’s poll lead surge to over 30 points, but Rishi Sunak was a different leader altogether. Slick, polished, and with the party (at least publicly) behind him, the idea was that Sunak’s first conference as Tory leader and prime minister would showcase a party in charge. 

The Labour conference, in contrast, would no doubt be dominated by internal rows – scraps with the unions over renationalisation, debates on what is a woman, arguments over public spending – giving Sunak the opportunity to look prime ministerial compared to the hapless Starmer. 

It has not worked out that way. Labour has been relentlessly on-message, with party discipline holding. It is the Tories who have been plagued by infighting and disorganisation. The bungling of the HS2 U-turn, with speculation spread out over four days, culminating in the Prime Minister announcing that the line will not run to Manchester while actually in Manchester, has continued: the £36bn of alternative infrastructure projects promised in HS2’s place has quickly dissolved into “illustrative examples” that are mostly either not going to happen or – bizarrely – have already long been completed.

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Other than an education system overhaul which is not due for many years and a plan to ban smoking for young people which Labour also backs, that was Sunak’s main offering in his first leader’s conference speech. Its unravelling leaves a vacuum where a substantial amount of Tory policy should be – and which makes the obsessive culture-war stoking on immigration or trans rights seem rather out of touch. Sending asylum seekers to Rwanda might be popular among Tory members; it might even garner support among undecided voters who are concerned that the UK cannot control its borders. But it won’t grow the economy or help to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis or improve the financial circumstances of the millions of people who feel under greater financial pressure now than they did when voting for Boris Johnson in 2019.

And then there is Labour. It is unclear whether the Tory team behind this year’s conference programme realised just how extensively Labour was about to move onto their territory, but they are there now.

First, Rachel Reeves hit a volley of traditional Conservative talking points in her speech: economic credibility, fiscal discipline, the moral imperative to spend taxpayers’ money wisely, the drive for growth. The last one is particularly critical for the Tories. With a focus on supply-side reforms such as house-building, investment and accelerating major infrastructure projects, this essentially looks like a mirror image of the Truss agenda: a growth plan, but delivered by people with actual economics expertise who understand it can’t all be achieved by tax cuts for the wealthiest.

[See also: The challenges and threats for Labour in the world to come]

Starmer’s speech picked up where his right-hand woman left off. Jacketless, shaking green glitter from his hair after being doused by a protester minutes in, the Labour leader coolly but passionately laid out why housing is so key to rebuilding Britain’s economy. “A future must be built: that is the responsibility of serious government,” he declared. “It’s time to build 1.5 million new homes across the country.”

For all that Starmer framed this as a continuation of the postwar Attlee government, this isn’t just moving onto the Tories’ turf: it’s building a mega-city there. Building 300,000 new homes a year was in the 1951 Conservative manifesto – achieved. It was also in the 2019 Conservative manifesto – very much not achieved (in 2022, 173,520 homes were built).

It is true that 1.5 million new homes is just a third of what is currently needed. It is also true that achieving even this is far harder than it is to announce. There is a reason all parties struggle so much with building – the political incentives and dynamics of local and national government are skewed towards letting the objections of existing residents torpedo future benefits for the wider population. 

But getting to grips with the housing crisis is vital to unlocking productivity and getting the economy growing again. Truss and her team understood that – they just didn’t think they could get mass house-building and planning reform past their own nimby MPs without sweetening them with a raft of tax cuts first. It is hard to overstate the anger in some Tory circles that Sunak did not mention housing in his speech, and that the subject, while fiercely debated on the fringes of conference, seemed so far down the priority list for actual ministers.

The fact Starmer made it the centrepiece of his speech shows not just ambition, but a willingness to highlight the “pro-growth” Tories’ failings on their own terms.

Yes, Conservatives will gripe about Labour voting down its nutrient neutrality reforms a few weeks ago, which would have freed up developers to build, but “nutrient neutrality” is poorly understood jargon. Voters who know what it means are likely to associate it with environmental protections. For those who care deeply about new homes, whether for themselves or their children, the promise of new towns full of smart Georgian houses is a more compelling offer than giving developers free rein to further pollute British rivers. If the Conservatives tear apart Starmer’s plan, they will no doubt cement their support among nimbys – but only by further damaging their own pro-growth credentials.

The challenge Starmer seemed to relish throwing down to Sunak was clear: even on the issues where the Conservatives have traditionally led – the economy, aspiration, the family, the rule of law, the ability to “conserve” – Labour can do it better. He even implored fed-up Conservatives to join the Labour Party.

So where do the Tories go from here? When the economy is the headline voter concern, the Conservatives have historically benefited, but Labour has enjoyed a poll lead on the economy for over a year now and nothing in this conference season has shifted that. 

Waging culture wars wins tabloid plaudits but risks making the Tories look even more out of touch as Labour monopolises the issues that matter most to voters. And the more brazen the proxy leadership contest to replace Sunak becomes the more space there is for Labour to present itself as the party of government. 

That public affairs staffer had a point.

[See also: Labour and the death of consensus]

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