“You did it. You blew the doors off!”
No, that’s not a misquote of The Italian Job but a triumphant speech from Keir Starmer following Labour’s “seismic” victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.
The victory, carried by a 20% swing to Labour from the SNP, comes on the eve of an eagerly anticipated Party Conference in Liverpool and will be a cause for optimism for party members.
Things are on the up and have been for a while. 44% of voters would vote for Labour if there were an election tomorrow and 35% are favourable towards the party. But Keir Starmer’s approval ratings aren’t much to shout about – there’s just a 4% difference between Starmer and Sunak – which could be problematic as we shift towards more of an American style election where the public vote for personality rather than party.
So what does this mean for the last Party Conference of the season and potentially the last before the next General Election? Here are the three things Starmer will be trying do at this year’s gathering of the party faithful and businesses looking for signs that Labour is on their side.
Set out the stall
Some say Labour’s poll lead is a result of voters’ anger with the failures of the Conservatives and the evidence backs this up: 86% believe Britain needs new political leaders.
But this is also dangerous. Starmer’s team know they can’t rely on winning the next election because the public are fed up with the Conservatives. Things might improve and Sunak is trying to steal the narrative of being a candidate for change which could make life more difficult.
Labour will in response set out a stall to the electorate that shows what they stand for and what difference the party will make to people’s everyday lives.
Show what you’re made of
It’s no secret Starmer is cautious and he’s right to be so; any wrong move has the potential to reduce the party’s lead and provide the Conservatives with a vulnerability they can exploit. But to get voters on side we hear they’re going set out a clearer policy platform.
It’s less about what the missions are and more about what jobs voters will be able to get under a Labour Government. It’s about going a level deeper on growth and Starmer and Rachel Reeves will go big on this in their speeches. We saw this in Sunak’s roll-back of net zero targets so Labour will look to play the Conservatives at their own game.
Starmer is similarly expected to set clear dividing lines with the Conservatives. What might these be? Complete HS2? Double down on net zero? This conference is the chance to go beyond the vision to the beginnings of a programme of government that will be delivered on day one.
Hold everyone together
Party conferences are tricky to manage for any leader. We only need to look back a few weeks to the Liberal Democrat Conference, which saw the party’s youth wing successfully coordinate a backlash against its housing targets, to see how the membership can cause headaches.
And Labour has not left behind its internal wranglings of the past. Sixty constituency parties have backed a motion for a Brexit debate which could cause a policy row. While the leadership will seek to avoid this through backroom meetings, any headlines around Labour reneging on Brexit would hand the Conservatives golden attack lines.
The tone going into this conference is nuanced: confident and serious but not complacent or euphoric. Labour insiders say they’re in stage three of their strategy: stage one was detoxifying the party while stage two was highlighting government failures. Now they’re seeking to answer the question “If not them, why us?” and that will be the focus of this week’s gathering in Liverpool.
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