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4 October 2023

Among the believers

Labour gathers in Liverpool as a government-in-waiting. But can Keir Starmer negotiate the traps being set for him?

By Andrew Marr

Ah, briny, blustery Liverpool! For a conference all about order, predictability, stability and a smooth, unemphatic road to power, it’s hard to think of an odder venue for Labour than this great port city of radicals and immigrants, which in some ways seems barely English: it keeps its angular back to the rest of the country, and its default political culture is anarchic, jostling and awkward.

Which is why, of course, the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn seemed so naturally at home here. Its “The World Transformed” festival flowed out into the more human-scale streets beyond the conference centre. Corbynism was up for almost any kind of protest against the powers that be, hugging tight its recollections of Liverpool’s hard leftist Militant years: the atmosphere of Liverpool in the Corbyn conferences of 2016 and 2018 was everything today’s party of Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves shudders to recall.

[See also: In power, Labour will have to act like a wartime cabinet]

But then, essentially, all party political conferences are odd. They proudly display their mostly hidden-away, idiosyncratic subcultures which the majority of ordinary voters would find weird. Those clammy-palmed, besuited adolescents of Toryland mumbling about Ayn Rand or The Road to Serfdom – weirdos. The Liberal Democrats busily, I don’t know, hand-weaving jerkins out of organic apples for a bit of prancing at the glee club – weird. Scottish National Party footsoldiers with a suspiciously detailed knowledge of military tactics in the early 1300s, who go gooey at the thought of Mel Gibson – as weird as they come. In politics we underestimate the cultural gap between the small group of true believers inside a party, and the vast remainder of the country they dream of embracing. We don’t, in short, talk enough about weirdness.

This is particularly relevant in October 2023: an important part of the Tory attempt to demolish Labour’s lead is to make the party of Starmer, Reeves, Wes Streeting and the rest seem out of touch with the mood of the nation. This may seem heroic – even impossible. Can you imagine a group of more normal Normals than the shadow cabinet? But wait; there’s a plan here.

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Labour’s late-20th-century weirdness was embodied by the knee-jerk anti-everything leftism of the Scouse Workers’ Republic in the days of Degsy Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. In popular culture it was Robert Lindsay’s Wolfie in the BBC drama Citizen Smith. It was canvas jackets literally disintegrating under the weight of metal badges. It’s as ancient history as prog rock or spacehoppers. How could the Tories, you might think, possibly apply any of that to today’s Labour Party?

But consider their main attack lines from the Conservative conference in Manchester. Labour is the party of people who want to take away your beloved car. If you have to have one, they insist it should be electric and driven very slowly to allow all the cyclists to get past while giving you the comradely finger. Labour, the Tories say, is so “ideologically” committed to net zero it will force you to pay £10,000 to have your old boiler ripped out, whether you want it or not, and whether you have the money or not. They don’t want you to go on holiday – certainly not anywhere nice.

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Take Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, recycling a widely ridiculed conspiracy theory over the misuse of so-called 15-minute cities by leftist councils: “What is sinister, and what we shouldn’t tolerate, is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they ration who uses the roads and when, and they police it all with CCTV.”

In other words, what the Conservatives are trying to say to uncommitted middle-class voters is that, underneath the reassuring trouser suits and neat hairdos, Labour is still not like you. Deep down, it deplores consumerism. It detests freedom. Its revolutionary, hair-shirt control freakery is still alive. Watch out, Britain: Labour is weird.

As I say, this still seems to me a stretch. What, weirder than the Tories? But Rishi Sunak is trying very hard to pin some of this on Keir Starmer personally. You know the barbs: Starmer doesn’t believe anything. He used to back Corbyn. He flip-flops. He will say anything – typical lawyer. And because of a traditional middle-class suspicion of labour and a general sense that people don’t quite know who Starmer really is, perhaps there is just the faintest sliver of a gleam of a possibility of a way back for the Tories.

At any rate, Labour needs to be prepared to defend itself. Its Liverpool conference is going to be heavily focused around, in the words of one of its organisers, “common-sense solutions to day-to-day problems” and there will be an emphasis on how much the party has changed. Corbyn has been cast out like a wicked angel, while Liz Truss is still welcomed, and adored, at the Tory conference – as is, by the way, the number-one name on our Right Power List (Cover Story, 29 September), Nigel Farage.

For Labour, putting economic growth as its top priority is, after all, a huge, underrated shift. For Tony Blair, education was the priority and before that it was always redistribution, not wealth creation. We will hear a lot about economic growth – in a non-Trussite way – at Liverpool. The mayhem of the handling of the HS2 decision at the Conservative conference shows that consistency matters. “We will be pushing the need for an active, interventionist state with a proper industrial strategy,” says a member of the team. Increasingly, business agrees.

[See also: Keir Starmer: This is what I believe]

Everybody accepts that Starmer’s speech on 10 October will be the biggest of his political career and that it needs to change perceptions of him in the country.  Emotionally, he is a guarded man. But some close to him say they have never seen him as angry as in recent weeks about a prime minister “literally governing to set traps for Labour rather than for the country… The public know this is flailing around – it’s not a future programme; it’s a spasm.”

One example is the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, using her conference speech to “ban” mobile phones in school classrooms – something that is not in the gift of ministers (as opposed to head teachers, who are getting on with it). Another is Sunak’s “ban” on 20mph driving, which isn’t a ban either. Or “backing drivers”, at a time when most people can’t get a test, or are negotiating potholes which opened up during the austerity years. If Starmer is angry, perhaps we need to see that. He hates doing the personal stuff – but we may hear more about his wife and her work in the NHS, and the daily business of ordinary parenting.

There will be detailed “retail offers” on the environment, sewage, education, energy and NHS waiting lists. The conference will close with an emotional reassertion of the party’s commitment to the fight in Ukraine. Bedecked with Union flags, it will be a gathering designed to be as un-weird and middle-Britain as humanly possible.

Looking beyond conference week, Team Starmer continues the game of bluff and guess about the timing of the election, and the rhythm of the winter ahead. They say it is perfectly possible that, Tamworth being a very tough Tory seat and Mid Beds a three-way split, Labour will win neither of the upcoming English by-elections. “Tamworth would be literally the biggest victory in any by-election ever. It’s not close to being on our target list,” says a Starmer adviser.

And with inflation falling at last, Labour is preparing for a May general election: even talking about October or November is more or less banned at the moment in the leader’s office. I’m told Sunak’s instinct is still to wait until the autumn – but a further argument for going early, starting to be more widely discussed, is the possible effect of a triumphant Trump campaign in October and early November. That would be so big it would distort everything, including a winter UK election campaign. The implications for British politics, from raw fear of Trump to the security implications, are so unpredictable that one minister advises Sunak, “Just keep well clear.”

And, after all that, in the end, if Labour wins, what happens next? I am told there will be an early and bold move on Lords reform (not, sadly, abolition). The last hereditaries will be obliged to leave; each party will be obliged to slash its representation in the bloated house; the Lords Commission will be strengthened to cut out the possibility of “shameless” crony appointments… and hanging over this will be a more or less explicit threat of a shift to a fully elected second chamber. For people who think nothing will change under Labour, it’s a decent start.

We would also see early moves towards a better relationship with the EU, something that senior figures in the party concede should happen early in a parliament, not later. It was interesting that a fierce defence of Brexit successes did not really feature at the Conservative conference.

This autumn, the Labour gambles are that the country is so sick of the incoherent Tory years that it actively wants a party committed to long-termism and a strong state; and that the shadow cabinet comes across as much more normal and grounded than the Tory ideologists on display in Manchester. A Labour victory still seems the likeliest outcome. But Labour people should never underestimate the danger of “not like us”. The Tories, despite the strategic failure of the past 13 years, have not been in power for so long by accident.

[See also: The Starmer conundrum]

This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power