Labour’s Liverpool Mission: The Party as a Government-in-Waiting
Following the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, attention shifts down the M62 to Liverpool where Labour comes together for their annual gathering. In stark contrast to the Tories, Labour head to Merseyside with the wind in their sails. Polls consistently show the party with a double-digit lead, with a resounding win in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election providing a further boost.
For the Conservatives, Manchester was about regaining political momentum after languishing in the polls for many months. Their conference was peppered with announcements and rhetoric almost exclusively focused on the next election campaign to the extent it was at times easy to forget that the party is in government. Much was geared towards their core vote, using language and focusing on policy designed to shore up the Tory heartlands and stir to life the blue vote in the so-called Red Wall. While the mood privately might have been downbeat about their chances at the next election, it’s pretty clear the Tories won’t go down without a fight.
In contrast, Labour will be determined to put on a show in Liverpool that is confident and united, with Keir Starmer (most visibly seen by the full page picture of him on the cover of the conference guide) thrust front and centre as a Prime Minister in waiting. The party will be desperate to avoid gaffes and damaging splits on policy. But at the same time, the danger Labour will need to avoid is looking too confident – almost complacent – which never goes down well with the voters.
And herein lies the challenge – how much of Labour’s lead in the polls is down to the party’s popularity and how much before the Tory’s are so unpopular? There’s been recent polling about how unhappy the public are with the current Government and how unlikely they are to vote for them again, but there isn’t yet a huge groundswell of enthusiasm for Labour. So far, the party’s policy offer has been thin – mostly built around five purposely vague missions. But you can’t sell intangible missions on the doorstep – there will need to be a more defined consumer-friendly set of policies if Labour isn’t going to just rely on the Tory party’s unpopularity to win the next election. Even some grandees from the New Labour years are pushing Starmer to be bolder.
Over recent weeks, the party has stumbled on occasions where they’ve tentatively been braver on policy – whether that is Starmer showing the merest bit of ankle on Europe, the announcement on immigration or on private school fees. Granted, on net zero, while the Government watered down their commitment, Labour stood firm. None of this has dented the party’s poll ratings, so it will be interesting to see if it emboldens Labour to go further on policy, or whether they’ve had their fingers burnt. That being said, I think it is likely they’ll be more policy announcements over the coming days, but I wouldn’t expect there to be a sudden rush.
What we will see is the party’s internal democracy kick in – unlike the Tories, Labour’s conference is a policy making forum and it will be voting on a very extensive National Policy Forum document – which is essentially an exhaustive list of all the party’s policy positions. This isn’t the manifesto – that will come later – but it is the basis for the manifesto. Starmer and his team will be desperate to avoid damaging defeats in the conference hall and given how much of the party is firmly under the grip of the leader’s office, major defeats seem unlikely.
The future of HS2 Phase 2 hung over the Tory conference. By cancelling Phase 2 and instead unveiling a package of alternative road and rail schemes with the £32billion saved, the Prime Minister either by intent or accident has set a political trap for Labour. Does the party recommit to Phase 2 of HS2 and maintain the alternative list of new schemes, and be open to accusations of unfunded commitments? Already, Starmer has sought to take the sting out of the issue by understandably taking a more measured approach. That being said, there is still strong support among vocal Labour Mayors to build HS2 in full and it might yet be an issue of disagreement for Labour in Liverpool.
We heard little from the Conservatives on the need to build more homes, with only the merest of mentions in Sunak’s speech in the context of redeveloping Euston station. Given how big an issue this is for the country, Labour will be under pressure to spell out further what more they plan to do on planning reform and speeding up home building. Starmer has in the past been bold on issues like building on the Green Belt, and it’ll be interesting to see if the party sticks with controversial positions, given others have been dropped over recent months.
One thing Sunak did mention in his speech was his support for the Tory Mayoral hopeful, Susan Hall. Expect Starmer to follow suit with public backing for all of the Labour metro mayors, despite rumbling disagreements on HS2 and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). He knows how important it is that Labour wins key contests next May as a springboard into a General Election – stumble, and the party loses momentum.
As seen in Manchester last week, party conferences provide a number of other clues of where the political wind is blowing. Attendance felt sparse in Manchester, the fringe was smaller and the exhibition stands more widely spaced as corporate interest clearly drained away. Hotel rooms were still available, which is pretty much unheard of for major party conferences.
Contrast this with Liverpool. Apparently, 16,000 passes have been issued and hotel rooms are rarer than hen’s teeth, with some reportedly staying as far away as Chester, Preston and Manchester. Trains out of Euston on Sunday have no seat reservations left. The bars and restaurants will be packed.
Labour’s fringe is larger than the Tories, but there’s not huge amounts of difference in the most popular topics compared to the Tory Conference – health/NHS, economic growth, education/schools, housing/homelessness and energy at the top. Exhibition space is also another sign of where sponsors and campaign groups think power lies or, more importantly, where it might be shifting. Labour has 165 exhibition stands in total at their conference in Liverpool, over twice the size of the Tory’s conference.
All in all, there is a palpable sense of power shifting to Labour, in a reverse of what happened in 2009 when Labour’s conference felt flat, and all the energy was with the Conservatives.
For Starmer, success will be a gaffe free, tightly run conference. He’ll want to focus on his agenda and project an image of a government-in-waiting. What Labour will be keen to avoid is dancing to the Tories tune, and not rising to some of the challenges thrown down by the government in Manchester last week. It’ll take some time for the polls to settle down after conference, but with two more key by-elections to come – both of which Labour will fancy nabbing from the Conservatives, we’ll get a good idea quickly whether conference season has altered the political landscape or whether Labour remains on course to form the next Government.
1 Full figures: Health/NHS 49, Growth (economic) 39, Education/schools/early years 32, Housing/homes/homelessness 27, Environment/climate/green 26, Net Zero 23, Children/Young People 20, Skills 18, Democracy/Constitutional Reform/Civil Liberties 18, Energy 16, Transport 10, Public services 7, AI 7, Levelling Up 6, HE 5, Devolution 5, Rail 5, FE 3, Planning 3. For the Tories, the top 5 subjects were economic growth, health/NHS, education/schools, skills and net zero