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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Keir Starmer To 'Reach Out' To The Country In Labour Conference Speech

6 min read

Labour leads the Conservatives in the polls but leader Keir Starmer is under pressure to flesh out his vision for the country.

A year in politics can feel like a lifetime.

When the Labour Party set off for Brighton last September for its first in-person Conference since the Covid pandemic, leader Keir Starmer was struggling to land a blow on the Conservatives.

Then-prime minister Boris Johnson, his personal ratings boosted by the vaccine rollout, enjoyed steady leads over Starmer in the opinion polls, despite the Tories being in power for over a decade, and seemed in a strong position to push on with his "levelling up" domestic agenda.

Fast forward one year to this weekend's Labour Conference in Liverpool and the backdrop is very different.

Months of scandal, culminating in Conservative MPs toppling Johnson in July, combined with the ongoing cost of living crisis, have helped Labour build significant leads over the Tories in the polls. So much so that Starmer is now favourite to defeat new Prime Minister Liz Truss at the next general election and become the first Labour leader to win an election since Tony Blair in 2005.

“Labour’s position is pretty good," said Chris Curtis, the head of polling at Opinium.

"The party has dramatically improved its position in a number of key metrics."

He said: “Take one of most important questions: which party do you think would serve you best for your personal financial situation? Keir Starmer is notably ahead on that question, and that is ultimately one of the most important metrics that drives voting intention."

Ipsos MORI on Thursday put Labour 10 per cent ahead of the Conservatives – the latest in a long series of polls to give the opposition a sizeable lead.

Ipsos pollster Kieran Pedley told PoliticsHome that if this was the result of the next general election, which is expected in 2024, it would be an "enormous swing" compared with the 2019 election, when Johnson comfortably defeated Jeremy Corbyn's Labour to win an 80-seat majority.

But he warned that Starmer's individual ratings were "so-so" and that he still had work to do to "seal the deal" with the general public, despite the progress he has made in the past year.

“We're now getting to the stage where Starmer has to outline his vision for the country," he said.

Curtis agreed: "You cannot not underestimate the number of problems Keir Starmer has solved... But he does need to set out a vision as people are still a bit unclear as to what the party stands for. With Corbyn, for better or for worse, often worse, people knew what he stood for."

Labour insiders admit that for all of Starmer's success in repairing the party's image, conveying a clear narrative about what a country led by him would look like has been difficult.

Doing so will be the Labour leader's foremost priority when he takes to the stage on Tuesday afternoon to deliver his Conference speech.

He is under even more pressure to spell out a more detailed plan for the country after Truss used the opening days of her premiership to announce a series of eye-catching policies which, while controversial, illustrated an unambigious direction of travel under her leadership.

A source close to Starmer said that the objective of this year's Conference would be to “reach out through the TV screen with a story that clicks with how people feel about the country”.

Another senior Labour source said that while last year's Labour Conference was more about getting the party in order after the demoralising defeat of 2019, this time the focus would be "talking to the country and showing we are in touch with their concerns".The economy is set to be a central theme in Liverpool, with Starmer having spent the summer working closely with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Shadow Climate and Net Zero Secretary Ed Miliband on the party's response to the cost of living crisis.

In August, the party announced that it would use an expanded windfall tax on energy giants to freeze the energy price cap, whereas the government is doing so using borrowing and taxation.

The shadow cabinet has also been briefed by the Australian Labor Party, and UK Labour has looked to Germany – with Starmer visiting Chancellor Olaf Sholz in July – and the US – including direct contact with the Democrats – on economic policy.

It is a running joke in politics that it wouldn't be a Labour Conference without some infighting, and Starmer will be hopeful that internal acromony does not spill out into the open when Labour MPs and members come together in Merseyside.

In recent months the Labour leader has been criticised by the party left for not letting shadow ministers join the picket line during industrial action.

While rail strikes that were planned to take place during Labour Conference have been cancelled, there is still potential for tension as Unite dockers are on strike in Liverpool and union sources are expecting to see Labour MPs express solidarity in person.

There is also the ongoing row over trigger ballots, which determine whether sitting Labour MPs are deselected by local members, with the Labour left claiming that they are being used to target MPs from their wing of the party like Sam Tarry.

In a sit-down interview with The House on the eve of Conference, deputy leader Angela Rayner said she didn't want to see Labour MPs being deselected, no matter which faction they belong to.

“I don’t approve of us attacking each other," she said.

"The more we do that, the more the public will see us as not a government in waiting. Actually, attacking each other proves to the public that we’re not fit to govern.

"If we can’t be inclusive to members of the Labour Party, how are we going to be inclusive to people that are not members of the Labour Party, that have different views to us?”

Starmer is also expected to come under pressure to back reforming the voting system, after more motions relating to proportional representation (PR) were submitted than any other kind ahead of Conference, The House reported.

Campaigners who want to ditch the current first past the post system for general elections point out that pro-PR motions have been the most popular topic among local parties for two years running.

While the motion was defeated last year in Brighton, Labour-affiliated trade unions including Unison have changed their stances on electoral reform since then, leading campaigners to believe their motion will be passed this time around.

If Labour does go on to win the next general election, prime minister Starmer may well look back on the party's 2022 Conference as an important step on the path to 10 Downing Street.

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