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26 September 2022

Can Keir Starmer unite Labour at this year’s conference?

The party appears the most unified it has in years – but Starmer may face dissent from Andy Burnham.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Labour conference opened in Liverpool yesterday, and Keir Starmer aims to rally his party and put activists on an election footing.

Sterling fell to an all-time low against the dollar this morning as the markets continue to react to Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini Budget, which set out the UK’s biggest tax cuts in 50 years. It leaves the stage open for the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, who will spell out her alternative vision for the UK economy this afternoon.

She told broadcasters this morning that the fall in the pound puts pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates. But her speech will focus on plans for a new £8bn national wealth fund and major investment in green energy, including eight new battery factories, six clean steel plants, nine “renewable-ready” ports, a new hydrogen plant and “net-zero industrial clusters” across the UK.

She will say: “What you will see in your town, in your city, under Labour is a sight we have not seen often enough in our country. Cranes going up, shovels in the ground. The sounds and sights of the future arriving.”

The speech will no doubt include an attack on Liz Truss’s government and its fiscal reforms, which will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy.

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Labour’s renewed ambitions for the environment, which are being driven by the former party leader Ed Miliband, are not satisfying everyone: some strategists are concerned the party should maintain a focus on the cost-of-living crisis. But Labour appears more united than it has in recent years, including at its 2021 conference in Brighton, when Starmer was repeatedly heckled by activists still loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. A tribute to the Queen went off without protest and last night a new Savanta poll for LabourList predicted a 56-seat majority for Labour, with the party taking back a string of Red Wall seats lost to a Boris Johnson-led Conservative Party, including Bassetlaw, Workington and Blyth Valley.

But Starmer is not without his critics. Chief among them is the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham. The “King of the North” diverted from Starmer’s view on income tax yesterday, when he said a future Labour government should reverse both the 1p income tax cut and bring back the 45p rate for higher earners to hand money to those on Universal Credit. The Labour leader has said Labour would reinstate the 45p rate but keep the 1p cut.

Burnham, who is attending a number of fringe events, also thinks the Labour front bench has failed to deliver sufficient criticism of Kwarteng’s budget. “We need to get a bit more on the front foot and say we are going to fight this,” he said at one event. “Where is the fight?”

Debates on electoral reform, nationalisation and strikes could also prove difficult for the leadership. Today there will be speeches from the shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, the shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, and the shadow work and pensions secretary, Jon Ashworth, followed by a speech from Starmer himself on Tuesday.

Labour’s brightest stars – the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, and the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson – will not speak until Wednesday, when many delegates will have left, leading some to claim Starmer does not wish to be outshone. But so far, with many Tory MPs privately voicing fears over Kwarteng’s budget, it looks likely that the Conservatives will present as the more divided force in British politics.

[See also: Who’s who in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party?]

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