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Voters Ask Keir Starmer “Now What?” At A Pivotal Moment For Labour

Keir Starmer (Alamy)

5 min read

Allies of Keir Starmer say he has reached the final "stage post” of his Labour leadership, and that he will use his party conference speech in Liverpool this week to tell a “story” about how he would govern if his party were in office.

Labour has maintained a significant lead in the polls since this time last year and is widely expected to be in a position to oust the ailing Conservatives at the next general election, which is due to be called before the end of 2024. But questions remain among voters and some Labour MPs over what the party would do differently to the current government, in which so many have lost hope. The pressure on Starmer to finally spell it out is now stronger than ever. 

At their own Conference in Manchester this week the Tories gleefully weaponised uncertainty around Starmer’s vision, and repeatedly made the leader himself, rather than his party, the subject of their attacks. ”He doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t stand for anything,” Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt said in her speech introducing the Prime Minister on Wednesday. In his own address Rishi Sunak characterised Starmer as indecisive and insisted his own party could offer the “change” voters desire. 

A source close to Starmer said the leader’s speech to Labour conference on Tuesday, which is expected to last less than an hour, would take the opportunity to tell voters what the “story” of Starmer’s Downing Street would be. 

”The real purpose is to say that if they [the government] are awful as we say they are, then why Labour?” they told PoliticsHome.  

Starmer has spent the past few weeks instructing shadow ministers to spend less time criticising the Tories and more time coming up with fixes to the problems facing the country. His message to senior MPs in the shadow cabinet in their recent meetings has been: “If not them, why us?”. 

Labour strategists are relaxed about the Prime Minister pitching himself as the “change” candidate because they believe voters simply will not buy it after 13 years of Conservative party rule.

“It’s probably the only thing left for [Sunak], but it’s absolutely ridiculous,” said one Labour source.

"What comes up constantly – and it’s not just in focus groups, you can walk into a pub and people will say it – is ‘I am just fed up with [the Conservatives]’ and ‘it’s time to get rid of them’.”

They stressed that the party planned to actively “own that mantra” of change.

The proof will be in the pudding. Luke Tryl, UK Director at More in Common, told PoliticsHome that in his recent focus groups he had started to detect growing impatience with Starmer’s perceived reticence, and that communicating a plan for the country to voters between now and polling day needed to be a top priority for Labour. 

"There is a bit of a challenge to Keir to set out what the Labour Party would do,” he explained.

“Rishi’s approval ratings have really fallen, but Keir's have fallen, too. There is a sense of 'come on, now what?'.”

Sensing Labour’s message vacuum, the Conservative party’s election strategist Isaac Levido has told Sunak that he must present himself as the leader to deliver “change”, despite his party having been in office more than a decade, because the Tory brand is too damaged. Levido told a cohort of Conservative MPs at the party’s conference Manchester that a public appetite for change is the biggest obstacle to a fifth consecutive general election victory. 

The stakes might be high for Labour, but they still have plenty of reason to head to Liverpool in a good mood this weekend and the conference is widely expected to be an upbeat and unified affair.

On Friday morning Labour pulled off a momentous by-election victory over the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. While the odds had been in favour of Labour taking the seat, a massive 20 percent swing to the party exceeded expectations and indicated the comeback they’ll need in Scotland to form a majority government could be on track. 

The scale of this year’s Labour conference also reflects the growing expectation among politicians and business leaders that they are on the cusp of winning a general election for the first time since 2005. The party has hired additional space in the ACC conference centre to accommodate the 16,000-plus people who are expected to attend.

Labour has also raised nearly £2m selling space in the exhibition hall where businesses and other stakeholders hope to meet MPs, and its business day is on course to double its 2022 attendance and revenue raised.

The Labour leadership will also be buoyed by a YouGov poll for The Times published on Friday that saw Labour retaining its 21 per cent lead over the Tories. The Conservatives did not appear to enjoy a so-called polling “bounce” after last week’s conference was overshadowed by a row over the cancellation of the Manchester to Birmingham leg of HS2 and unabashed leadership posturing by figures on the party’s radical right. 

Conservative MPs have even expressed concern that as party leaders make their pitches, the unusual timing of this year’s Labour conference taking place after their own could work in Starmer’s favour by allowing him the last word. 

What already looks certain is that the word “change” will feature heavily. The burning question for Starmer now is what that looks like under his party. 

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