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Sun, 21 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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The Labour Party must show it is a government in waiting

(Alamy)

3 min read

The Labour Party is confident but not complacent as it returns to Liverpool for what is likely to be its last party conference before the next general election.

Confident because it is ahead of the Tories, leading in the last 700 opinion polls. Not complacent, because to get a bare majority of one it still needs to win 123 seats.

It took three elections and three leaders for Labour to make such a recovery in 1997 under Tony Blair; in comparison, Keir Starmer has only had four years to change his party.

Labour’s poll lead is real, as the sweeping by-election victory in Selby and Ainsty over the summer showed. But the party can still lose – as seen in Uxbridge, a contest that on paper should have been an easy win for Labour. 

It is a cliché, but oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them

It is a cliché, but oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. The greatest fear for Starmer is that Labour is stuck in an unbreakable habit of being an opposition party that loses elections, again and again.

That’s why transforming the party was Starmer’s first task – and the emblem of that was last year’s conference singing “God Save the King”. This year, Labour must turn to the country and answer the question: “What difference will you make for me and my family? Not what you promise for the country – but for me!” 

Politics, in the end, is a retail business. And retail is detail. Blair had five pledges. Keir Starmer has five missions – which if achieved would transform the United Kingdom into a fairer, safer, healthier, wealthier and greener country. Now is the time for Labour to start selling those ideas.

That’s a key reason behind Starmer’s reshuffle in early September, promoting good communicators like Liz Kendall, Peter Kyle, and Thangam Debbonaire. Ed Miliband, who is critical to Labour’s appeal amongst younger, green-leaning voters, was kept in charge of energy security and net-zero – an area already becoming a wedge issue. Starmer’s ace in the hole – deputy leader Angela Rayner – was given a post equal to her formidable talent, shadowing the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. From housing and planning, to devolution and tackling regional inequality, Rayner’s portfolio is central to electoral success and a future Labour government.

The new top team have two key tasks this conference – to get across a clear picture of what Labour stands for and look collectively like a government in waiting. This requires a sober tone – optimistic but realistic. One that persuades the public that the only thing holding back this great nation is the current zombie government in office. And this has to be done without spending lots of money. No Labour government has ever spent its way out of trouble. The task, as outlined in Starmer’s missions, is for the country to work together constructively and productively.

In the last few months, Starmer has shown he can be a leader –  travelling to The Hague to meet Europol with the aim of cracking down on people smuggling gangs, then flying to Montreal to meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other progressive leaders, and after that visiting France to meet President Emmanuel Macron. 

Starmer has shown he is a partner other countries can do business with. If the rest of the Labour Party is able to show the same combination of seriousness and steel at conference then they will consider that a success. 

 

John McTernan, former political secretary to former prime minister Tony Blair

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