For some Labour figures, the most important moment at their Liverpool conference was not Keir Starmer’s assured speech, even though his address was hailed as the moment when his party moved from respecting him to loving him. For them, the crucial episode came when the conference sang the national anthem to mark the Queen’s death.
One shadow cabinet member, who feared delegates would not sing or even boo, said with utter relief afterwards: “I think we will look back on this as the moment the tide turned before we went on to win the next election.”
What a difference a year makes. A year ago, Starmer’s conference speech was interrupted by hecklers as his left-wing critics made their last stand. The grumbling about his lacklustre performance and thin policy gruel extended to loyalist MPs. As usual, Labour preferred to contemplate its own navel rather than the real world, with a debate about party rule changes. (They were worth it as they cemented Starmer’s control of his party).
This year, a confident Labour has finally reached out to the country and given it at least a flavour of how the party would change it. Labour is united; Liz Truss’s ideological crusade has reminded it of the real enemy and the economic crisis has persuaded some Starmer sceptics to endorse his “country first, party second” mantra. Labour strategists believe Truss will be an easier target than the elusive Boris Johnson, who was hard to pigeon-hole and once described himself as a “Brexity Hezza” (Michael Heseltine).
Labour’s opinion poll lead has risen to an average 14 points; for the first time since losing power in 2010, it is optimistic about regaining it. “Twelve months ago, I would not have dared to dream we would be where are today,” one senior figure told me.
This year, the left and even trade unions who don’t like Starmer were largely silent, even though they have been marginalised. “We are not going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” one senior union official said. Critics are still seething about what they call Starmer’s “false prospectus” in the 2020 Labour leadership election, running as “Corbynism without Corbyn” but then junking much of his own policy agenda.
A left wing MP said: “A lot of members are demoralised; they have no say and are leaving the party.” Starmer won’t lose too much sleep about that.
However, he doesn’t have it all his own way. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, was on manoeuvres at countless fringe meetings and could emerge as the left’s candidate in a future Labour leadership election, with significant union backing. He positioned himself to Starmer’s left by calling on Labour to oppose the government’s cut in the basic income tax rate from 20p to 19p in the pound – and backed the conference’s call for proportional representation, which Starmer made clear he would veto without provoking a great row. Burnham’s problem is that he would have to return as an MP in order to stand in a leadership contest if Starmer failed to win the general election.
For now, nothing succeeds like success for Starmer. His party has the precious ingredient of momentum, and it is being boosted by the Tories’ unforced errors. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) stark warning to the government about last week’s disastrous mini-Budget is another sign the political tide has turned in Labour’s favour.
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Success breeds confidence. You could sense it in the conference hall here in Liverpool and in today’s confident round of media interviews by Starmer. “There is change in the air,” he said. He offered us another dividing line between him and Truss, telling LBC “I am not ideological” when pressed over whether Labour was the party of nationalisation. On BBC Radio 4, Starmer even tried to turn his “boring” label to his advantage, arguing that the country needed a “serious person steering the country calmly and confidently” rather than a PM who could tell the media he had “done a bungee jump.”
Although the party departs Liverpool today convinced it is on the brink of power, Starmer knows the job is not done yet, saying: “Every single vote has to be earned… we will go further and faster.”
He will need to. In 12 months, Labour’s pendulum has swung from overdone pessimism to overdone optimism. It still has policy and communications gaps to fill. According to Savanta ComRes, only a third of people (35 per cent) say Labour have produced clear policy ideas, while almost half (46 per cent) say it has not.
As one sober Starmer adviser put it: “There is a real danger of complacency creeping in. Some people seem to think we are home and dry. We are not.”