The Labour Party conference: can things really only get better?

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It is a view widely held among electoral historians, that oppositions do not win elections but rather governments lose them. In this regard, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has certainly been ably assisted – five prime ministers in seven years, one of which lasted less than 50 days, does not exactly speak of immense public confidence in the Conservative government of the day. Indeed, from Boris Johnson – the first UK Prime Minister to receive a criminal conviction while in office – to Liz Truss – the shortest-reigning premier in British history – the track record of the Conservative Party’s recent leaders is hardly gleaming.

There are some media commentators who believe Sir Keir has adopted the so-called ‘Ming vase strategy,’ in which the opposition party assumes the most ultra-cautious approach possible, so as not to ‘drop the vase’ through announcing any unpopular or polarising policies. Instead, they let the government dig their own hole, the opposition hoping that it will squeak to victory at the election simply as the lesser of two evils. Until recently, this was an interpretation of Labour Party policy that did hold some water. However, since Labour’s annual conference, this view is increasingly coming under question.

I was able to attend this year’s conference and observe the festivities first-hand. And while overshadowed by the new Israel-Hamas war, there was still a palpable sense of Labour laying out its stall of electoral goods, ready for the possible election potentially as early as May 2024.

There was one clear reminiscence remnant of 1997: a sense of hope

Often Sir Keir’s greatest criticism is his lack of ‘vision’, of a clear, cohesive campaign story. However, his priorities are starting to take shape, in the form of a package of somewhat modest, yet pragmatic, objectives. Labour has pledged to build 1.5mn homes and two new ‘new towns’, as part of their aim to “smash the class ceiling” and open home ownership to all. They have promised 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs on the streets and a 20% VAT is to be imposed on private schools, partially to fund investment in the state sector. In addition, they are to appoint a ‘Covid corruption commissioner’ who would seek to recoup some of the government funds lost as waste and fraud during the pandemic.

It has been remarked that Britain is a conservative country that sometimes votes Labour. Indeed, Labour ruled for just two decades in the whole 20th century, often in the form of short-lived but radical, reforming governments, such as those of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. The exception to this is Labour under Tony Blair’s period as Labour leader, when Labour returned a 179-seat majority in the 1997 general election under the leadership of Blair and went on to ultimately secure three successive election majorities. Indeed, in the early 21st century, there were claims that this hegemony of Blair’s New Labour would mark the death knell for the Conservatives once and for all.

This was not a cynical call to division and despair, but a call for unity and progress in the face of despair

There are similarities, or echoes, between today and 1997. In both instances, a Conservative government rocked by scandal and sleaze, who had mismanaged the economy, and seemed out of touch and out of time in the public’s view, was in its death throes. However, one should be careful in making comparisons between now and 1997. Back then, the economy was strong. In 2023, the cost-of-living crisis remains bleak for many. Blair was a charismatic and forceful orator.There are few who would say the same of Starmer.

And yet coming away from this year’s Conference, there was one clear reminiscence remnant of 1997: a sense of hope, a pervasive sense of hope and optimism that transcended ideology or party allegiance. Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England appointed when George Osbourne was Chancellor, sang the praises of Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves. Indeed, Starmer attempted to appeal to voters from across the political spectrum when he declared in his speech that “if you feel our children need a party that conserves, that fights for our union, our environment, the rule of law, family life, the careful bond between this generation and the next – then let me tell you, Britain already has one. And you can join it – it’s this Labour party”. This was not a cynical call to division and despair, but a call for unity and progress in the face of despair; it appears that many of the attendees of the conference really do believe that things can only get better.

Image: Rwendland via Wikimedia Commons

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