Political conferences rarely alter much in the world beyond their policed nylon barricades and beer-scented fog of ambition. But sometimes they mark a turn: a movement collapsing or reviving; a leader learning to lead, or a leader losing the plot. Think Neil Kinnock against Militant in Bournemouth in 1985; or Margaret Thatcher not turning in Brighton five years earlier; or Theresa May’s surreal car crash in Manchester in 2017. Well, the Labour conference in Liverpool this year is up there in terms of significance.
It was a display of discipline, “God save the King” patriotism and a quiet lust for power, topped off by one of the best leader’s speeches I have heard from any side for a long time. What did we learn,or have confirmed? That after a dozen years Labour is almost certainly heading back to power.
Many on the left will have found the discipline suffocating, the lack of radical fire a bit deflating, and all those Union flags and references to the late Queen mildly nauseating. But unpatriotic parties don’t win power. And all the radical fire in the world doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have power.
Important lines were drawn. One is on tax. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves’s explanation of how she would spend the proceeds of reimposing the 45p income tax rate – on nurses, midwives and the desperately needed expansion of medical school places – was perhaps the clearest example of how this crucial battle is going to be fought. Rail will be renationalised – so we know that device is still in the toolkit. The shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Ashworth’s plan to get hundreds of thousands of unemployed over-fifties back into the workforce may not be an obvious headline-grabber, but in terms of growth it matters.
Those looking for more imaginative thinking will get some of what they want later this year when Gordon Brown’s commission, reporting directly to Keir Starmer, publishes its work on tax, Scotland and constitutional reform.
But Labour may not have much time to further hone and shape its messages. This whole conference was, of course, overshadowed by the dramatic news from the south about the pound and the cost of borrowing.
Buffeted by the markets, the Conservative Party is close to losing the plot, just as it finally gains a new leader.
As we await the Bank of England’s response to a tanking currency, market assumptions are for anything up to 6 per cent interest rates next year. This would be devastating for many middle-class mortgage holders and businesses; politically it could finish the Tories. You might think the most obvious response would be a U-turn, or at least an L-turn, in Truss–Kwarteng strategy. But they have made it crystal clear that isn’t going to happen. And if it did, they’d have marginally less credibility in the Conservative family than the flower-pot men.
Although Kwasi Kwarteng is bringing forward his medium-term fiscal plan from next year to 23 November, which is some kind of concession, he wants to go further on unfunded tax cuts despite the markets. They used to be regarded by the Tory right as an unanswerable reality. Now they are apparently dominated by unpatriotic, sandal-wearing, lentil-chewing bed-wetters. Who knew?
Meanwhile the next part of the strategy – freezing public spending by rejecting a review – opens up what may turn out to be even worse politics. It isn’t only tax cuts for the rich; it will soon be effective spending cuts across the public sector.
One recent poll had Labour scoring 45 per cent, a 12-point lead over the Tories, which would give them something like a 56-seat majority at the next election. This seemed an outlier until it was followed by another giving labour a 17-point lead, the biggest for more than 20 years. As I say, this is a pivot moment.
It’s possible the markets will rally and the growth-or-bust strategy will prove effective in the medium term. But if the pound continues on its current trajectory, interest rates are jacked up quickly and the promise is only of more tax cuts, then level-headed Conservatives will panic, and rightly.
But the Tories’ options are very limited. They can’t put the country through yet another leadership contest, surely: how would panicky markets react to Britain having no government at all for another slice of the autumn? Some are speculating that Boris Johnson might try some kind of spectacular return. Perhaps he might unite with recent foes to propose an emergency government of all the Tory talents? But again, it seems bonkers. Forcing out Truss and Kwarteng would be dirty and personal, the last spasm of a dying creature.
[See also: What we learned from Labour conference 2022]
Back to Liverpool. From now until the next general election, the campaigning will be relentless. The big challenge for Starmer at the conference was to show that he could find the words to win a proper audience. He did.
All conference speeches have a certain windiness. But his was nailed on to the concrete experiences of everyday life: the raw sewage in rivers; the backlogs in courts and hospitals; burglaries going unpunished; the people told to drive themselves to hospital after a heart attack; the cold; the fear of bills.
It was the speech of someone who has properly listened to the worry pulsing through the country. After a tribute to the Queue following the Queen’s death – he didn’t forget that – Starmer spoke of “a Britain all at sea where a cloud of anxiety hangs over working people”. The speech relentlessly portrayed Labour as a party of reassurance, serious-minded common sense and patient duty – a rather Queen Elizabeth II Labour.
Starmer was brutal about the past failures of the left. He painted himself squarely in the tradition of Attlee, Wilson and Blair. In different ways they would all have signed up for what might be the new Starmer slogan, bold at a gathering of the faithful: “Country first, party second.”
Much of the speech, quite rightly, focused on the environment and green growth. Labour’s emphasis on investment in carbon-free technologies isn’t happy-clappy, but essential and urgent. The party still needs to demonstrate more clearly how the £28bn annual climate investment is going to stay within the UK economy, creating jobs here, rather than bleed out into other countries building wind farm blades or solar panels. And it needs to crunch down its messaging so that everyone understands how it ends the sentence: “Labour will get growth by…”
But – and this was central to the speech – growth isn’t everything. People want security, belonging and decency as well.
Less chaos and mayhem in our public realm would also be quite nice, wouldn’t it? When Starmer promised a politics of integrity that would unite rather than divide, respect other points of view and focus on the long-term rather than the short, it sounded curiously exciting. All that old dull stuff – policies that are clearly costed, borrowing only to invest for the future, an office for value for money – feels new and interesting because it’s what we need.
Politics depends upon its animal spirits. Labour has achieved much, but it has been missing something essential: a certain urgent gusto, an inner belief. In the middle of a grave national crisis, Keir Starmer found that something. He told the Labour conference to believe that Britain would deal with the cost-of-living crisis and get back its future, becoming again a force for good in the world and “a fairer, greener, more dynamic nation”.
Rhetorical conference blather, you may well think. The kind of thing speech-writers speech-write. Well, yes, I’m cynical. I’m grouchy and suspicious. I’ve seen and heard it all before. But growth does come from the bottom up and the middle out.
I did feel a thrill of determination run through that stifling hall in Liverpool. Something in Labour changed there.
This is going to happen.
This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion