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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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A fresh start? What lies ahead for Labour at Conference '22

7 min read

As Labour delegates gather in Liverpool, Kevin Maguire predicts the scent of power will impose some party discipline.

Having recently discovered Harold Macmillan’s “events” are as unpredictable as ever, Keir Starmer was widely judged to have delivered a pitch-perfect response to the death of the Queen and accession of a new King.

Labour’s annual Conference, starting in Liverpool six days after the state funeral of the longest-reigning monarch in the United Kingdom’s history, will mark the resumption of party politics and present a golden opportunity for Starmer to set out his party’s stall and resume hostilities with Liz Truss.

Both the newly minted Conservative successor to Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and the leader of His Majesty’s Official Opposition who will relock horns were young republicans now turned older monarchists.

“We anticipate the normalities of political combat will return swiftly, and fundamental problems, whether the cost of living crisis or the worsening condition of the National Health Service, are completely unchanged,” a prominent member of the shadow cabinet tells The House.

“Keir recognises that. Hopefully the country will too. Showing respect during a period of national mourning does not extend to giving the Tories and Truss a free ride afterwards.”

Covid scuppered Starmer’s first Conference in 2020, and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace has understandably disrupted preparations for the third. Party officials are quietly confident, however, that he will avoid a repeat of isolated heckling during his big speech last year, when the internal stresses and strains of moving Labour on from the Jeremy Corbyn era were on parade.

“That lot are largely gone,” observes a veteran of past battles, “either because they were kicked out or more likely departed in protest at the new management. Not all were bad, but equally we’re pretty relaxed, not to say relieved, most have gone. The focus is on winning a general election. Anybody or anything getting in the way isn’t welcome.”

The conference slogan “A Fresh Start With Labour” clearly doesn’t embrace the 91,000 lost members disclosed in the party treasurer’s report and filed with the Electoral Commission, which declared 432,213 members on New Year’s Eve 2021 compared with 523,332 on 31 December the previous year.

Lost subscriptions contributed to a £4.8m deficit, along with staff redundancies and seemingly endless legal battles with former employees, despite the party’s income at £45m topping the £31m of the governing Conservative Party.

The anticipated rightwards shift in the affiliations of constituency delegates, Corbynistas replaced by activists more supportive of Starmer’s current pitch, will help him manage the Conference and generate enthusiasm for that major speech, which is, back to the future, riskily once again scheduled for Tuesday afternoon rather than Wednesday lunchtime and the last word.

Grumpy trade unions are expected to pose difficult challenges at a time when the cost of living crisis is generating a wave of strikes.

One union general secretary present at a meeting with Starmer said the Labour leader privately apologised for the mishandling of instructions to Labour front benchers ordering them not to join picket lines.

Starmer’s failure to give strikers full-throated support is a potential flashpoint, along with discussions over public ownership of energy, water and mail – with rail the only 2019 manifesto renationalisation pledge to survive.

Backing a fresh, significant windfall tax on energy producers enjoys enthusiastic support across the party, as does a package of employment rights spearheaded by Angela Rayner, Labour’s popular deputy leader.

Electoral reform makes it onto the order paper and the Conference is likely to call for Labour to replace first past the post for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament. Unison and Unite have switched in favour of change since last year’s meeting, stripping the leadership of an industrial block against proportional representation and finally uniting unions with constituencies already heavily in favour.

Healthy poll leads and relief their gathering escaped the fate of a cancelled TUC Congress and Liberal Democrat conference add to a sense of expectation in Liverpool that Labour could avoid a fifth consecutive general election defeat and actually win next time.

Nervousness is palpable in the leader of the opposition’s office over what may be the political impact, if any, of a Queen leaving and a King arriving, though the general view appears to be that it will be minimal.

“Everybody’s understandably determined not to be disrespectful in any way,” says a Starmer adviser, “and everybody understands that when normal life reasserts itself, the daily struggles will come to the fore if they were ever overlooked for a couple of weeks.

“Rising fuel and food bills still need to be paid, and Keir advocating an energy windfall tax was our defining political moment of the summer. They replaced Johnson with Truss, tore themselves apart with blue-on-blue bile, then she comes up with a higher £2,500 cap and no way to pay for it except borrowing.

“Voters aren’t daft. They know there is no magic money tree growing free cash. Rachel [Reeves, the shadow chancellor] proving we’re the party of fiscal responsibility is a trump card.”

Shadow ministers complaining they’re unable to make even minor spending commitments is a charge frequently heard against the leader’s office and shadow Treasury team.

So too are regular moans about interference in, and tardy approval of, announcements and speeches.

Disharmony is never far below the surface in the shadow cabinet. Perhaps it was always thus in opposition parties. The same is true of sniping against a leader. The difference with 12 months ago is some bookmakers now make Starmer odds-on favourite to be prime minister after a general election. Newly installed Truss signalled it would be in 2024, but Labour suspects earlier.

Starmer’s critics in the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs in Parliament accuse him of Stalinist methods, after threats to suspend the whip from MPs accused by his office of giving succour to Vladimir Putin by criticising Nato at the start of the Russian leader’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

The tactic, however, appears to be working from Starmer’s point of view, with no Labour MPs billed to speak at a meeting on Ukraine called by a Stop the War coalition in Liverpool away from the official fringe. Leading Nato critics Corbyn and Claudia Webbe both now sit as independents in Westminster: Corbyn over the anti-Semitism row; Webbe after a harrassment conviction.

The clashes in Liverpool will be noisy, with aggrieved trade union leaders demanding to be heard, but not seismic

Equally the leader will be relieved none of his MPs are on the platform of the Labour for a Republic group’s fringe on the future for the monarchy. Whatever the answer to that thorny question, the immediate backdrop has altered the palatability of the debate.

One of the more free-spirited figures on Labour’s front bench predicts the clashes in Liverpool will be noisy, with aggrieved trade union leaders demanding to be heard, but not seismic.

“I take the same view as the great Jack Jones, who answered ‘murder yes, divorce never’ when asked about relations between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement,” said another leading light in the shadow cabinet, recalling the observation of the former trade union great.

“We’ll have disagreements and rows in Liverpool – we always do at conferences – but to borrow another phrase it’s blindingly obvious that more unites than divides us.

“We can all read the opinion polls, we all recognise that Starmer is in with a decent chance of No 10 and we all know that any Labour government would be better for working people and their families than the Conservatives.

“So it won’t be all sweetness and light – it never is – yet I’m confident we’ll leave Liverpool in decent shape.”

We’ll all see.

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) at the Daily Mirror

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