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LIVERPOOL, England — As delegates amassed in Liverpool this week for the U.K. Labour Party’s annual get-together, the real drama was unfolding elsewhere.
Monday morning saw the markets react brutally to the Conservative government’s tax-slashing mini-budget, with the pound plummeting to an all-time low and the cost of U.K. government borrowing forced sky-high.
By lunchtime, a stubbornly silent Kwasi Kwarteng, the newly-appointed chancellor who dreamed up last Friday’s £40 billion unfunded giveaway, was being chased down the street by camera crews. By the late afternoon, the Bank of England had released an emergency statement saying it would not hesitate to act on rampant inflation. Eventually, Kwarteng was bounced into promising a new fiscal plan later this year.
Conservative MPs looked on in horror, some muttering darkly to journalists about removing both Kwarteng and his boss, Liz Truss, who was installed as U.K. prime minister only three weeks ago.
“I do think she could be in trouble,” a former Tory official said. “MPs are having a total meltdown.”
If the conference floor 200 miles away in Liverpool felt muted in contrast to the turmoil back in London, you won’t hear many in the Labour Party complaining.
This week’s staid affair in northwest England represents a sea change for Labour after seven years of their own bitter infighting — with mainstream MPs first having repeatedly rebelled against former boss Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership, and then Corbyn’s allies rejecting his successor Keir Starmer’s more centrist take. Vicious battles over Brexit, party rules and anti-Semitism raged throughout the period.
But after two-and-a-half years of Starmer’s leadership, his hold over the party seems total. This year, the only real excitement came over his decision to ask attendees to sing the national anthem following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“The far left have seen the writing on the wall and given up,” said Mike Katz, chair of Jewish Labour, an affiliate of the party.
Some feared the singing would be interrupted by left-wing hecklers unimpressed by the flag-waving sentiment, but the moment passed without event. One senior aide to Starmer described it as “the longest minute of my life.”
Boring boring Starmer
But while there was no internecine strife in Liverpool there was precious little buzz about the place either, despite a dawning realisation that the political momentum may finally — after 12 long years in opposition — be shifting in Labour’s favor.
One seasoned conference journalist described the atmosphere as tediously “corporate,” with “lots of young people in suits scurrying about.” A young delegate suggested the atmosphere was flat because the party membership is still regrouping after years of bloody civil war.
But the staid tone is also set by Starmer himself, a besuited former lawyer who cuts a steadfastly reserved — some would say boring — figure.
His supporters insist this is an asset in the current climate. A loyal shadow Cabinet minister said Starmer is “clearly someone who has not changed themselves,” and that “that is paying off, because at a time like this people feel they can actually trust him.”
In reality, Starmer has been constantly honing his message and tone. He has a new set of speechwriters, and a delegate who observed his tour of regional party receptions in Liverpool said he had “clearly worked” on a more relaxed delivery style.
Others are less sure he has found his voice. One MP suggested Starmer’s rotation of speechwriters and close aides had pulled him in too many different directions, and that he still lacks a clear ideological “project” to carry him through. “With (former leaders) Blair and Brown, the project came first. And with Corbyn. With Starmer it’s pretty much standard soft-left social democratic politics.”
This year’s conference slogan — ‘A fairer, greener future’ — also fell flat. “Why are we insisting on being so dull in such times of crisis?” asked one party aide.
Much of the dullness was intentional, with Starmer’s team careful to silence prominent figures seen as potential rivals to his leadership. There were no “Tory scum” remarks from his deputy Angela Rayner making headlines this year, while two Labour staff members confirmed policy meat had been shorn from a speech by Shadow Levelling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy so that Starmer could announce it in her place.
Only Andy Burnham, the ambitious mayor of Greater Manchester who rose to new prominence during the pandemic, struck notes of discord, calling for more “fight” from the party leadership and repeatedly attacking Starmer’s positions on tax and voting reform.
Starmer’s senior aides were dismissive rather than rattled by the coded challenge. “What a dick,” one said. “What is he doing? It’s all bullshit. Burnham doesn’t believe any of that stuff.” A person involved in Labour’s selection processes said Burnham would not be able to secure a parliamentary seat before the next election, likely to be held in 2024.
Power to the people
But despite the largely muted backdrop, party members and strategists are starting to believe that victory is in their sights, with the Conservatives badly divided after a bloody leadership contest and with the U.K. economy in dire straits.
On the morning of Starmer’s keynote speech on Tuesday — as voters continued to digest Truss and Kwarteng’s controversial fiscal statement — Labour found itself 17 points ahead in the polls, its biggest lead in more than 20 years.
Starmer repeatedly referred to what he said was the Conservatives’ mismanagement of the economy, claiming they had “lost control” and “ripped out the foundations” of the country.
Senior Labour officials are careful not to be seen reveling in the government’s economic malaise, even as they sense power may be within their grasp. “It’s a really serious situation,” said one Starmer aide. “I’m genuinely worried for the country.”
But no-one is denying the political opportunity. “The important thing is to land it,” the aide added. “It can’t be an abstract thing about money markets. We’ve got to explain to people why this stuff really matters to them — the cost of imported goods going up, fuel going up, mortgages going up.”
Party strategists know this is a message they have to communicate to multiple audiences, targeting ‘Workington man’ — a shorthand for voters in deindustrialised towns who voted Tory for the first time in 2019 — as well as ‘Worcester woman’, a reference to wealthier voters in middle England who once voted Conservative but swung to Labour under Tony Blair.
Electorally, Labour has a mountain to climb. The Conservatives hold a large majority of almost 80 parliamentary seats, while in its former Scottish heartlands, Labour has never recovered from a rout at the hands of the Scottish National Party in 2015.
Yet party insiders say they have reason for optimism. With the divisions of Brexit largely behind them and with Boris Johnson now yesterday’s man, working-class voters in so-called Red Wall areas feel “gettable” again, said one person working on the party’s campaign team. A mass drive for decarbonisation is seen as a crucial link between these working-class and middle-class groups, potentially creating new jobs while answering concerns about climate change.
And while a serious revival in Scotland appears unlikely — one party official admitted only 15 seats north of the border are competitive for Labour, and that “we won’t win them all” — aides are bullish that Tory warnings about Starmer needing a backroom deal with the SNP to secure a parliamentary majority will not have the same potency in England that they have in the past.
“We have a simple message on that now,” the same Labour official said. “No. Deal. We don’t need one. We know the SNP wouldn’t vote down a Labour government, and so do they.”
‘This is a Labour moment’
Activists were also buoyed by Starmer’s keynote speech Tuesday, more tightly scripted than last year’s rambling affair and containing two eye-catching announcements: a plan for a nationally owned energy company, and a target of 70 percent home ownership.
He placed the task facing Labour now within a history of “big moments” when the party has moved from opposition to government, citing famous election victories in 1945, 1964 and 1997.
“This is a Labour moment. Say it loud and believe it,” Starmer urged.
For the first time in a long time, figures on both the left and right of the party both found something to admire in a leader’s speech. Owen Jones, a left-wing commentator and former Corbyn enthusiast, praised Starmer’s policy proposals, while Corbyn’s former right-hand man John McDonnell gave the energy plan a cautious welcome.
On the right of the party, Blair’s former aide Peter Mandelson said Starmer would leave Liverpool “with his electoral appeal and authority hugely enhanced.” He added: “He has planted his flag firmly in the center ground, and nobody serious is contesting that.”
Indeed for Starmer’s long-divided party, it may be that the prospect of touching power again, and a sense of dull steadiness, in fact go hand in hand.
“We can smell power,” said one shadow Cabinet member. “There is no more sobering reason to unite.”