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29 September 2022

What we learned from the Labour Party conference

The prevailing mood was one of optimism, but there remains no clear route to power for Keir Starmer’s party.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Labour activists gathered in Liverpool for party conference between 25 and 28 September as Keir Starmer tried to put his party on an election footing. Here’s what we learned.

1) Labour has begun to believe it can win the next election

With economic turmoil gripping the country and the party more united than it has been since Ed Miliband was at the helm, Labour is ahead in the polls. One survey gave the party a 17-point lead and predicted it would win a comfortable overall majority if an election were held today. Activists will leave Liverpool reinvigorated and hopeful that the Red Wall seats will switch back to Labour. The crowd at the conference was very different from that of other years, too, with fewer placards and more suits as businesses and donors show an interest in the party.

2) The prospect of victory means a renewed offensive in Scotland

Starmer looked like a prime minister in waiting when he delivered his speech on 27 September, but his address recognised that there is no route to No 10 for the opposition leader that does not go through Scotland. He announced Labour would back a publicly run energy company which would create 100,000 jobs north of the border. And he categorically ruled out a deal with the SNP: “We can’t work with them. We won’t work with them. No deal under any circumstances.”

3) Keir Starmer is very much in charge

The dissent that marked Labour’s 2021 conference in Brighton was almost nowhere to be found this year. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham challenged Starmer on tax policy and proportional representation, but suggested in interviews that he was disappointed to be on the sidelines rather than the main stage. Left-wingers who remain sceptical about Starmer’s leadership were largely quiet and Starmer appeared relaxed and in control of the Labour machine. A key line during Starmer’s speech was “country first, party second”, which signalled to the grassroots that internal infighting had to end if the party is to win power. Wes Streeting’s rendition of Robbie Williams’ “Angels” at a party, changing the lyrics to, “I’m loving Starmer instead,” underlined that relationships within Labour are harmonious. It was notable that Starmer’s speech did not include an attack on the Lib Dems, with some speculating that Labour is open to a deal with Ed Davey’s party in a hung parliament scenario.

4) Labour focused on getting the barnacles off the boat – but questions remain over Brexit

This was a policy-heavy party conference. Starmer fleshed out Labour’s Brexit position, announcing that in government he would operate a points-based immigration system, after earlier in the year saying the party’s manifesto would not include rejoining the single market. The MP Stella Creasy, who chairs the Labour Movement for Europe, has called for Labour to build closer ties with the EU. Creasy wants Starmer to commit to joining the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean Convention to recognise the origin of products and the North Seas Energy Cooperation to fast-track green power deals. She also backs the creation of a “European security partnership”. With the economy in trouble, calls for stronger trading ties with Europe could grow louder in the months ahead.

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5) Labour’s path to power is not yet clear

The Conservatives will gather for their party conference in Birmingham from 2 October and Liz Truss is at a disadvantage after Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget led the pound to tank. The International Monetary Fund’s extraordinary intervention shows how isolated the UK government is. But Truss has been in power for a matter of weeks and a full Budget next year is predicted to include further reforms to child benefit, income tax and pension pots. Kwarteng is expected to set out medium-term debt-cutting plans in November and, with a global recession predicted post-pandemic, has insisted that the government’s pro-growth strategy will prevail. There appears to be no way out for the Tories as some lenders withdraw mortgage products and inflation hits another record high, but the next election is not expected until 2024 and any positive news on the economy between now and then will be held up as a success. The mood at Labour conference has been one of optimism and confidence, but the party’s challenge now is to capitalise on Truss’s calamitous handling of the economy and cement the impression that Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, can be trusted on the economy.

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[See also: Sam Tarry’s deselection has inflamed Labour’s factional divisions]