Compiled by Wes Ball and Natasa Pantelic
The backdrop: Labour riding high
“Be in no doubt. It’s time for change.”
These words came not from Keir Starmer campaigning to become Prime Minister, but instead from the actual Prime Minister concluding his conference speech earlier in the week. On the eve of the Opposition’s conference, there is no better framing of the state of British politics. After 13 years of Conservative government (and five Conservative Prime Ministers) both party leaders are trying to be the change candidate.
Last night’s massive by-election win in Rutherglen puts Keir Starmer in the driving seat. It’s no surprise that with a sustained poll lead and a government that seems to be doubling down on its base rather than reaching to the center, Labour feels confident going into this Conference. The flipside is that some insiders are using words like “hubris,” “complacent” and “over-enthusiastic.” Labour is on the precipice, but to what—victory or an almighty stumble?
It’s trite to say that Keir Starmer’s speech is a big moment. Trite, but also true. Probably his last before the General Election, he must tell the country what a Labour government would look and feel like and what it would do. And party insiders want him to offer hope for the future too. Following a reshuffle that’s brought more experience and politics from the center to his top team, the new Shadow Cabinet are likely to play a major role in filling out the details. Starmer wants to show that Labour is ready to govern and has a plan to build a high growth economy.
One for the money, two for the show
Labour has a dual leadership. Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves work hand in glove. Reeves’ “Securonomics” speech in Washington and accompanying pamphlet set out a clear political vision for how Labour would run the economy. Strategic investment in key sectors with a powerful industrial strategy focusing on advanced manufacturing, tech, and the net zero transition, alongside strong global alliances with friends and allies to shore up supply chains—these are the central premises of her thinking.
The work Reeves has done with business and her highly disciplined approach to public spending commitments have seen Labour take a consistent poll lead on economic competence, building trust in their economic approach. This is a precious asset that Reeves will be determined not to waste. But she has a job to reach out to the electorate and build their confidence in making the right choices to accelerate growth and wages.
That task has been made harder by Rishi Sunak’s recent announcements. Where spending has been cancelled or delayed (as in the cases of the Net Zero and HS2 announcements) the baseline has been altered. Where Labour had agreed with the government’s previous plans, if it now chooses to reverse the U-turn and revert to the original plan, that becomes a spending commitment. And in the case of HS2, it seems the government is intent on disposing of land previously earmarked for the Birmingham to Manchester route, making it almost impossible to reverse the decision.
But voters—and Reeves’ party—do not want iron fiscal discipline to be the bind that traps the party. The wider party is ambitious to change the country in its direction. And the public will rightly ask how Labour can be a party of change if its plans for public spending are identical to those of the current government. Defining change while retaining fiscal credibility is the central policy issue for the party in the coming months.
The former Bank of England economist is determined to be Britain’s first female Chancellor. But Reeves knows the road to No 11 has been made even more complicated in recent weeks. Her speech on Monday is crucial in setting out how she would deal with those tasks.
Five missions and 116 pages, now go go go
Starmer says his government will be a mission-driven government that will go about its task differently. He’s set five long-term, cross-government challenges that he thinks Britain needs to address:
- Strong growth for higher living standards
- Making the UK a clean energy superpower
- An NHS fit for the future
- Safe streets and stronger policing
- Breaking down the barriers to opportunity
Putting policies to those missions was the job of the party’s National Policy Forum earlier in the year. Their conclusions in the 116-page National Policy Forum report will be debated and agreed during the course of the conference this week. This is the basis for their election manifesto. But not everything in it will make the cut, and you can be sure that Labour will also hold back key, eye-catching policies until closer to the election.
Nevertheless, party leaders know that expectations from business are high for this conference. After a surprisingly engaged and warm reception at Conservative Conference, many business leaders are looking to Keir Starmer and his team for much more flesh on the bones of their plans. Explaining the detail behind the NPF commitments is the first part of that work.
In recent weeks, transport, immigration, climate change and education have been “wedge issues” the Conservatives have tried to use to show a change of direction for the government and force Labour to respond. The much more aggressive approach from Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives does pose a new challenge for Labour. Wedge issues are deliberately divisive and designed to trap political opponents (and let’s be clear—all parties use them). Starmer’s big challenge will be to respond to these provocations whilst maintaining his strategic focus, holding discipline in his party, and spelling out in more detail how he will develop his plans for government.
The Conservatives are determined to make this a presidential campaign: Sunak vs Starmer. Sunak is still (just about) more popular than his party. And Conservative strategists happily tell journalists that “[Starmer] is an empty suit and the voters don’t like him.” That may or may not be true, but they are determined to create a sharp contrast between the two on character and leadership. We’ll see them saying that Sunak has made tough decisions in the long-term interests of the country while Starmer has U-turned on everything he believes. Given the current state of the polls, it’s not clear that the voters will accept this framing. But it is an attack that Starmer’s team is determined to get ahead of at this conference.
This conference is an opportunity for Starmer but, it is one that has many risks too.
Rutherglen: Onwards to victory?
The significance of last night’s huge victory in Rutherglen cannot be overstated. Labour didn’t just win—they smashed the Scottish National Party (SNP). Labour’s majority is now bigger than the SNP’s vote itself. Up to this point, Labour only had one seat in Scotland. But after an impossibly difficult summer for the SNP with the arrest of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the polls have shown Labour is back in contention north of the border. Now we know that what people are telling pollsters can be transformed into votes. Showing that Labour can once again win in Scotland is a huge psychological and symbolic boost for the party.
It's difficult to make projections for a General Election from a by-election result, so estimates that say Labour could win up to 40 Westminster seats in Scotland should be taken with a pinch of salt. But the fact that they can now hope to take many seats off the SNP makes Labour’s task of forming a majority appreciably easier. Every 12 seats that Labour wins in Scotland effectively takes around two points off the national swing needed to defeat the Conservatives across the UK.
It also shows how different politics is in Scotland. The SNP’s very difficult few months on top of a 16-year stretch in government has created a significant anti-SNP coalition of voters. The Conservatives got just 3.8% of the vote and lost their deposit. That is problematic for the Conservatives—years on from the time when Ruth Davidson went toe-to-toe with Nicola Sturgeon, are they competitive in Scotland at all? And it’s a massive klaxon for Humza Yousef and the SNP. Unionist voters are now working together and voting tactically to defeat the SNP. Their iron grip on so many parts of Scotland is under serious threat.
Scottish Labour has its own view of the world. It is more liberal than the UK-wide party on many social issues—repealing the two-child benefit cap was a big issue in the campaign and Anas Sarwar, the Scottish leader, takes a different view to Keir Starmer on the UK’s relationship with the EU. If Labour does have a sizeable group of Scottish MPs as part of a Labour government, they may help Keir Starmer into No 10. But they will also put pressure on the party’s policy agenda. Labour structurally isn’t one homogeneous group—Scottish Labour MPs aren’t necessarily always going to be supportive or easy when it comes to governing.
This is the first Labour conference in many years starting without major internal battles being played out in the media or party. There are tensions. The Unite trade union did not sign up to Angela Rayner’s “new deal for working people” at the National Policy Forum. Party members are keen to push harder for an end to the so-called “two-child cap” on benefits and to demand a closer relationship with the EU. Furthermore, a number of notable politicians moved in the reshuffle are grumpy, to say the least. Moreover, with over 16,000 attendees, hundreds of journalists and a new level of scrutiny on the party, someone is bound to say something that is both newsworthy and unhelpful. But the prospect of power is a strong unifying force to a party that has been so distant from the levers of the state for so long.