Conference for a Shared Future

On the eve of last year’s conference in Brighton, there was a Queen on the throne, a Johnson in Downing Street, and few had heard of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Now, as we gather in Liverpool, the political landscape that Keir Starmer surveys is changed utterly. As he rehearses his big speech in front of the mirror, he knows this is a crunch point for his leadership. Successful party management is a necessary prerequisite for success, but not enough by itself. Starmer may now have a solid majority on the NEC and within the Labour Party – now he must win a majority with the voters.

The main obstacle is a Conservative Party shamelessly hell-bent on reinvention, repudiation, and misdirection. It’s a masterclass in renewal in office, a trick Labour has never managed. First, they put Liz Truss into Number Ten, surrounded by shiny new Cabinet colleagues and advisers. Truss has appeared like the Shopkeeper in Mr Benn, as though from nowhere, conveniently forgetting her decade at the Cabinet table.

Second, they have torn up policies they introduced themselves, with the alacrity of a new government which has just won an election. Friday’s ‘fiscal event’ is the ultimate example of repudiation – reversing tax increases and tearing up manifesto promises all over the shop. Liz Truss is going to be furious when she finds out it was Liz Truss who agreed to all these things in the first place. A minor point – the Chancellor claimed it was time to stop the focus on redistribution, but as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Resolution Foundation, and Rachel Reeves have pointed out, it was a budget for redistribution. From poor to rich.

Third, misdirection, using the imported culture wars playbook to distract and divide us. This weekend home secretary Suella Braverman has written to police commissioners and chief constables instructing them to spend less time on ‘symbolic gestures’ such as initiatives on diversity and inclusion. Her brilliant idea is that the police should spend more time on fighting crime. I bet they wish they’d thought of that themselves. Perhaps it would be easier if the Tories hadn’t cut all the police.

A police service still reeling from the reputational damage of a rapist in its ranks, and the killing of Chris Kaba, should legitimately spend some of its time addressing issues of race and gender. But this is not the point of Braverman’s intervention. It was just another skirmish in the War on Woke to garner some headlines in the Mail and Sun. We can expect to see much more of this divisive nonsense.

Truss’s strategy is clear: a toxic cocktail of Trumpian populism and Thatcherite economics, when Don met Maggie. ‘Tratcherism’ – pretending to care for the ‘people’ while shafting them. The question is what should Starmer do next?

Labour must present a sound alternative to Tory boom-and-bust. If economic growth is our watchword, then we must show how we would stimulate it. How will we invest in infrastructure projects such as railways, motorways, and airports? How will we invest in skills so 18-year-olds are job-ready? How will we support entrepreneurs and start-ups? How (and where) will we build the homes our growing population needs so badly? How do we support life sciences, robotics, the gaming industry, and the other opportunities of the technological revolution? How do we ensure economic growth is a nationwide phenomenon, not just confined to within the M25?

If the Government appears increasingly reckless, then Labour must look like a serious, sober alternative. If the Tories look clueless (see Therese Coffey) then Labour must look like we have a plan. Where the Tories appear chaotic and venal, Labour must come across as united and determined. When Kwarteng serves up Barber-on-crack, Rachel Reeves must be a model of Brownian prudence.

As we gather in Liverpool, despite Avanti’s best efforts, there is a golden opportunity to speak to the nation, not each other. We should sound like a lively bunch of folks, fixing the things people care about, with decent values and canny ideas. It does not mean anodyne speeches and neutered debates. But is does mean that endless points-of-order, waving flags, whingeing about Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, booing the National Anthem, heckling Wes Streeting, or any other indulgent behaviour must be shunned. If you want to swap the latest conspiracy theories you saw on Al-Jazeera, fantasise about ‘left blocs’ and barricades on the high street, or wear your Trotsky t-shirt, that’s what ‘The World Transformed’ is for.

When Starmer speaks in Liverpool, he must exude self-belief, clarity of purpose, and a vision for Britain. He must sound like the Prime Minister, not a Leader of the Labour Party. There must be a touch of destiny about him. Last year, he spent an hour telling us about his own past. This year, he must tell us about our shared future.

If you enjoyed this Paul on Politics, check out the previous instalment Remembering Giles Radice: A One-Man Think Tank.