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13 October 2023

The seven lessons of Labour conference

Beyond Keir Starmer, two main camps have emerged in the party: one led by Rachel Reeves, the other by Wes Streeting.

By Rachel Wearmouth

This week’s Labour conference was likely the final one before a general election. What did we learn about Keir Starmer’s party?

Keir Starmer cemented his authority

Starmer had one task: to answer the question “why Labour?” The conference speech he gave on Tuesday (10 October) was arguably the most important of his career, which he acknowledged by speaking of how his party would, in 2024, have to emulate its achievements in 1997 – “to rebuild a crumbling public realm” – 1964 – modernise an economy “left behind by the pace of technology” – and in 1945 – “to build a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice”. Labour was pitched as a party of “builders”, opposed to the decline and stagnation of chaotic Tory rule.

In addition to new policies on housing, health and education, Labour’s philosophical centre was finally revealed. Starmer referenced “choosing the hope of the hard road” (ie, message and fiscal discipline for a purpose) and a “decade of national renewal” (crucially, he did not rule out new investment as part of this), and did nothing to alarm voters ahead of the general election.

But he spoke passionately of the “bond” between politics and people – immeasurably damaged by Covid-19, partygate and the shocks that followed the Brexit vote – and how there have been “countless missed opportunities” to deepen that bond in recent years. Starmer wove well-established themes of “respect” and “security” around a central argument of belonging and working-class solidarity. He all but admitted hearing the “nagging voice” of imposter syndrome, “saying no this isn’t for you, you don’t belong here”, adding: “In some ways – it’s the hardest class ceiling of all. But conference, imagine if instead a whole country said you do belong.” It was a rallying call for those who will knock on doors for Labour at the next election, and an important milestone in establishing Starmer’s authenticity.

[See also: Labour’s two by-election victories could signal a landslide general election win]

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Labour is now the party of business

This bears repeating as every room that conference-goers entered was also attended by people in suits. There were many business leaders and lobbyists present, and they appear to have made up their minds about who will form the next government. A Savanta poll, shared exclusively with the New Statesman, showed that 45 per cent of business leaders believe Labour is best for business, with Starmer favoured over Rishi Sunak and Rachel Reeves preferred to Jeremy Hunt.

This is important not just for votes but for policy: Labour feels it has the latitude to take more risks, with Starmer’s pledge to “bulldoze” planning regulations and get Britain building a notable example of this.

Rachel Reeves’s reputation has grown

It was standing room only for the speech delivered by Rachel Reeves, who is on course to become the UK’s first female chancellor. Reeves, who topped our Left Power List back in May, is also increasingly spoken of as a future party leader. 

Her address to conference was book-ended by endorsements from the retail expert and David Cameron-era adviser Mary Portas, who said Reeves would be the best-qualified chancellor in history, and the former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, a past ally of George Osborne. The speech focused on how Labour would boost economic growth and her “securonomics” vision. It included commitments to slash consultancy spending, to increase stamp duty on foreign property owners, and to appoint a Covid corruption commissioner “to chase down those who have ripped off the taxpayer”. Reeves also reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to impose VAT on private school fees and promised that all major tax and spending changes would be subject to a forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (unlike Liz Truss’s mini-Budget).

Despite pledges to back infrastructure and green investment, however, many will regard Labour’s mission to achieve the highest growth in the G7 as impossible without a closer relationship with Europe. Calls for more alignment may intensify from Labour’s pro-EU voices should the party win power. Activists attempted to force through a motion on this issue on the conference floor and believe they may be successful next year.

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

Sadiq Khan is in trouble

Ask most Labour insiders about Khan’s chances at the London mayoral election next year and they are sceptical he will win an unprecedented third term. Though Khan will be able to boast that he has frozen Tube fares, delivered record levels of affordable housing and introduced free school meals for primary school children, the Ultra Low Emission Zone and the introduction of a first-past-the-post electoral system are expected to damage his prospects. “If Susan Hall [Khan’s Tory challenger] is replaced by someone like Paul Scully [the minister for London], then I don’t think he will get over the line,” said one prominent activist.

[See also: Will Sadiq Khan lose the London mayoral election?]

Scottish Labour is growing in influence

The party conference took place just days after Scottish Labour’s victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, in which the party achieved a dramatic 20.4 per cent swing. “There is no SNP MP who can rest easy,” the shadow Scotland secretary, Ian Murray, said with a wry smile during his conference speech.

Labour now looks capable of taking dozens of seats north of the border. Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader, will be a strengthened figure with a voting bloc of MPs in Westminster, but will need Starmer’s support if he is to win back Holyrood in the 2026 Scottish Parliament elections. Headquartering the new publicly owned GB Energy, which is expected to create 50,000 jobs, in Scotland will be key to this.

Labour will place stronger workers’ rights and higher wages at the centre of its campaign, but could have been derailed by its refusal to lift the two-child benefit cap. When Murray spoke of “the soft power of brand Scotland” during his speech, some viewed this as a coded message to the leadership not to veer too far rightwards.

There are two main camps: Reeves and Wes Streeting

The leadership reigned supreme throughout the conference and delegates were more than content with that. But beyond Starmer, who made clear in his speech that he is aiming for a decade in power, activists mainly coalesce around two figures: Reeves and the shadow health secretary Wes Streeting. Streeting, the charismatic campaigner tasked with reforming the NHS, describes himself as Labour’s “gateway drug for Tories” and has a bedrock of support among Blairites. He also has many allies among candidates likely to feature in the new intake of MPs.

Reeves is the favourite of Labour’s old right, but her commitment to workers’ rights and to a green industrial revolution has allowed her to forge links with the trade unions and soft left that Streeting can only dream of. Will the pair face off at the next Labour leadership or will an alternative front-runner emerge?

Enter Bridget Phillipson

The shadow education secretary came into her own during this conference with a barnstorming speech on the final day. It was reminiscent of Tony Blair’s 2001 conference address in Brighton, in which the then prime minister declared “poor education is a personal tragedy and national scandal”. The narrative frame for Phillipson’s education reforms is “high and rising standards”, which she linked to tackling poverty and inequality: “The role of government is to extend opportunity – fundamentally to extend freedoms – to each of us, and to all of us. Freedom from fear, from ignorance, from illness. Freedom from insecurity, from injustice and from poverty. Freedom to achieve and to succeed.” 

It is a distinctively personal mission for Phillipson, who escaped the poverty of her own childhood through education. That Starmer announced a string of new technical colleges in his own speech underscores how her brief, which includes childcare and early-years reform, will be at the forefront of Labour’s offer at the next election.

She also demonstrated a steeliness not often seen during broadcast interviews, with a message for the “private school lobby” and “arrogant” independent schools over Labour’s plans to impose VAT on fees: “Chippy people make the change that matters.” She is one to watch.

[See also: Keir Starmer offers himself as a left conservative]

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