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Here Comes the Sun

8 October 2023
| by Field Team

Off the back of a "seismic" by-election victory, Field's Tom Murphy previews a conference at which Keir Starmer's aim will be to prevent complacency and cement his party’s lead over the Conservatives

In Liverpool this time last year, things began to feel different. Labour Party conference felt different. No shock resignations, no heckling in the main hall, no shouting matches in the bars. No histrionics. The worst thing you could have accused Labour Conference in 2022 of being was a little dull, particularly in contrast to the sound and fury of the collapsing Truss government. For the many corporate attendees returning to Labour for the first time in years, that must have seemed no bad thing. Stable Government is meant to be dull.

If Labour felt like a Government in waiting then, they now feel like a Government counting down the days. No complacency, their MPs will tell you, but it is understood that if they continue to go about their business as they have been, Keir Starmer will be moving house next Autumn. The status quo feels well and truly reversed, and Conservative Party conference last week went some way to proving it. Watch Mark Harper opine about 15-minute cities, or Liz Truss hand out signed copies of her disastrous mini budget, and the Tories felt like an opposition in all but name. Not just any opposition either: there was a smack of Corbyn-era Labour, circa 2016, about the Conservatives in Manchester last week. Fewer MPs, little corporate presence, limited media interest. A sense of collective defeatism and a seriousness vacuum, filled by conspiracy theories and teenage activists taking selfies with Nigel Farage.

And so arriving in Liverpool today, things feel different once again. Labour has less to prove, and more to lose. Their platform is significantly stronger than 12 months ago, their commanding poll lead reinforced by a convincing defeat of the SNP in this week’s Rutherglen and Hamilton by-election. “Seismic” was the word Sir John Curtice, the nation’s foremost polling expert, used to describe that victory, yet nothing Keir Starmer or Labour have done this past year has struck with the violence or suddenness of an earthquake. Instead it has felt like the tectonic plates of British politics gradually shifting, realigning themselves in Labour’s favour, as history shows us they tend to do cyclically every generation or so. No convulsions or shocks; just a slow but sure change in the landscape. Starmer has designed it this way. A perfect conference for him this year will be one free of controversy, one which leaves businesses and media feeling secure and sure-footed, with trust in the new terrain

around them. With a cast-iron grip over his MPs, he will want it to pass without so much as a tremor.

Starmer’s aides will have reminded him of this year’s watchwords before he sat down to his interview with Victoria Derbyshire this morning. He said he is “confident” a Labour government will boost growth and bring in more money for public services, because of a strategic plan and “months and years of careful conversations” with business. Strategic. Careful. Secure. Labour MPs might as well carry these words around with them on placards and point at them. All of it is designed to ensure trust in Labour to run the economy, their oldest achilles heel. Starmer was at pains to tell Derbyshire that “the single defining mission” of his Labour government would be to improve the economic growth rate: Labour could start to “turn this round” within months of winning power.

One might be justified in pointing out that the strategy described above is lacking some of the boldness and excitement of previous Labour leaders on the cusp of power. But Starmer will point to the firm evidence it is working. Two leaders will present themselves to the country as the “change” candidate next year. One is the latest in line of five prime ministers from the same party, one which has governed for 13 straight years and must be held accountable to every facet of Britain today. The other has a 21 point poll lead. Much could go wrong in the next year, and this Labour conference is another moment for the party to drop the ming vase. But Starmer’s grip is still firm, and he is watching each of those moments disappear behind him, one by one.

The landscape has changed. As if to prove the point, Liverpool’s dockside, typically amongst the windiest, wettest environments known to man, is forecast to enjoy warm sunshine for the duration of conference. October in Liverpool is wet and windy, and Labour lose elections. Universal truisms which persist for just long enough that they begin to feel utterly inevitable. Then one day someone, somewhere flicks a switch, and the scenery looks completely different.

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