Sir Keir Starmer had barely started his speech at this year’s Labour Party Conference in Liverpool before he was ‘glitterbombed’ by a protestor from a group known as People Demand Democracy. Starmer, who had been visibly rattled by activist usurpers in recent years, was not afforded the profound opening he would have wished for – but this time his reaction was a little different.
After a little encouragement from the audience, and with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, Starmer declared: ‘If he thinks that bothers me, he doesn’t know me. Protest or power? That’s why we’ve changed our party.’ For a politician who has been dogged by claims that he is boring or uninspiring, it was a response which summarised the monumental turnaround he’s presided over since becoming Labour leader in 2020.
Here Pagefield Consultant Harry Gault offers his other takeaways from a memorable party conference where Labour moved ever closer to power for the first time since 2010.
Light on policy, heavy on emotion
Starmer’s speechwriters prioritised emotional rhetoric over a raft of new policy announcements. In an attempt at appealing to disenchanted Conservative voters, Starmer pledged that with Labour in government, ‘we will face down the age of insecurity together’. Casting Labour as a party of ‘builders, modernisers and healers’, he convincingly made the case for a ‘decade of national renewal’.
Compare Starmer’s clear, confident speech to the scatter-gun list offered by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a week earlier– banning smoking, abolishing A levels and cancelling the planned HS2 rail link from Birmingham to Manchester – and there is a stark contrast of mood and tone.
The Conservatives, the party behind the levelling up agenda, have consistently promised funding to the regions to upgrade rail infrastructure and improve their connectedness to economic hubs across the country. But some things simply never change: the transport projects reeled off in the Prime Minister’s speech to be funded using HS2 money, included schemes that had already been built or were quickly deleted and was intended only to be ‘illustrative’, according to both Sunak and his Transport Secretary.
So, when Starmer says Labour understands the concerns of voters, is the party of service, and can solve Britain’s problems – those disaffected Tory voters open to change might well have been swayed.
Building for growth
Expanding housebuilding targets, making it easier to build on brownfield sites and ‘bulldozing’ the planning system were all central to Labour’s message to voters in Liverpool. Not only this, but plans to remove roadblocks to housebuilding fit into a wider drive by the party to work with the private sector and stimulate economic growth and regional regeneration.
Starmer announced plans to build the ‘next generation’ of New Towns, along with 1.5 million homes, as he and his party seek new ways of driving economic growth without increasing taxation or state funding. He also outlined plans to allow housebuilders to build in some parts of the Greenbelt – in areas he claimed should be renamed the ‘grey belt’ – a move that will undoubtedly upset the NIMBYs.
There have only been six Labour Prime Ministers compared to the Conservatives’ 57, and Starmer will need to draw on the party’s biggest success stories if he is to successfully reinvigorate the stagnant economy he will inherit. Plans for New Towns resemble those of Clement Attlee in the aftermath of the Second World War, and Labour strategists will be hoping to recall some of the same strategic radicalism that helped rebuild the country all those years ago.
Doubling down on green prosperity
The Labour leader and his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves have been criticised for scaling back the party’s promise to spend £28bn on green investment. But Starmer affirmed Labour’s ambitions to turbocharge green infrastructure investment across the economy.
Placing climate action at the heart of Labour’s economic vision for the UK, he explained how Labour would aim to remove planning barriers and boost investment in renewable energy, grid infrastructure, electric vehicle manufacturing, and green steel plants.
In contrast, Sunak used the Conservative Party conference to announce a weakening of key net zero policies, including pushing back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2030 to 2035 and moving the goalposts on heat pump regulations. As Rosa Hodgkin of the Institute for Government said, Sunak’s speech ‘risked politicising the climate crisis and breaking the net zero consensus’.
Framing the race to net zero as an ‘opportunity we can’t pass up’, much like the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore who called it the ‘growth opportunity of the 21st century’, Starmer can bring the public onside and reinvigorate support for the UK’s green transition.
The birth of ‘securonomics’
While many agree that Starmer presented a different and more hopeful vision for Britain’s future, he also made clear the scale of the challenge.
Starmer will inherit an economy gripped by stagflation. The failure of Liz Truss’ libertarian, economic experiment still looms large over Westminster with the Bank of England resorting to interest rate hikes to manage inflationary pressures. The victims are of course the general public, particularly borrowers like those with mortgages but also everyone else who feels the pinch as they are forced to cut back on spending.
Some people will, understandably, look to a potential change in Government as a silver bullet capable of solving the country’s economic woes. This will not be the case, sadly, and Starmer knows that Labour needs to be honest with the public about the challenge ahead.
This is also where the Shadow Chancellor’s theory of ‘securonomics’ comes to the fore. She has made it clear that in Government, Labour cannot ‘tax and spend’ its way to growth. Instead, the party will need to ‘tax fairly and spend wisely’. The Shadow Chancellor’s ‘ironclad’ approach to sustainable tax and spending does a few things: it underlines her party’s determination to exercise fiscal responsibility, a trait with which the public has not always identified Labour; and acts as a reality check for those who expect the party to announce lavish spending plans as a way of stimulating the UK’s ailing economy.
By Harry Gault
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