As the Tories implode into a farrago of populist nastiness and broken promises, with Liz Truss as their spirit guide, attention turns to whether Labour is ready to govern. Labour’s conference in Liverpool is the last one before the voters make up their minds about whether they trust us or not. Are we ready?
Ignore the opinion polls, which will narrow as polling day approaches and the Tories shore up their ever-narrowing petrol-head, climate-sceptic, anti-immigrant base. Ignore too the results of by-elections, which seldom reflect the results in a general election – though the excellent result in Rutherglen and Hamilton West this morning is incredibly encouraging. What we say and what we do as we gather on the banks of the Mersey will show whether we deserve to win. Here are ten tell-tale signs that Labour is ready to govern.
1. Is Labour talking to the country or itself? This pre-election conference should be a showcase for a government-in-waiting, with glittering speeches from shadow ministers with serious plans for change. Or we can spend our days debating NEC rule changes and references back. If the news headlines are about our plans, not our procedures, we are on the way to victory.
2. Is there a conference buzz? Hard to define, but you can tell when a party is on the road to power. There’s a crackle in the air. We should never stray into triumphalism, nor complacency. Labour is a long way from even a majority of one, never mind a landslide. But when a party is on the trajectory towards Number Ten, you can just tell from the buzz in the bars and on the fringe. The Tories in Manchester showed the opposite is also true.
3. Are we credible on the economy? The iron discipline that Rachel Reeves has imposed on unfunded spending pledges must play into conference itself. Conservative spin doctors are watching our speeches with calculator in one hand, and a phone set to speed-dial the Mail in the other. No-one should be guilty of giving them ammunition with unrealistic extra government expenditure.
4. Does Keir Starmer’s speech cut through? On Tuesday, the party leader gives his ‘parliamentary report’. Starmer must give a short, sharp address to the nation, proving he is fit to be Prime Minister, with a grown-up approach to the multiple problems we confront, and the grit and determination to fix them. No more ‘back story’, no silly jokes about toolmakers, just a serious speech at a serious time.
5. Is business taking Labour seriously? The party is claiming record levels of interest, and cash, coming in from British businesses. If business leaders are engaging with shadow ministers, sharing ideas, and preparing for a change of government, that’s a key sign that Labour is being taken seriously. If you can spot as many captains of industry as trade union general secretaries, Labour is back in business.
6. Do our speeches reflect modern Britain? Perhaps the best bit of conference are the speeches by delegates, often first-time conference speakers, sharing their experiences of small business, social care, the NHS, the classroom, the railway, or shopfloor. It’s a reminder that Labour is the people’s party. The speakers from the floor must look and sound like our multifarious communities, not just SW1. And yes, we need to hear from PPCs, but not every single speech please.
7. Are the disagreements doctrinal or tactical? Of course, there will be differences of opinion, especially on the fringe. But are these about the fundamentals of our economics, like whether to nationalise Sainsbury’s, or our internationalism, like whether to leave Nato? Or are they about the best ways to achieve our social-democratic goals? The latter is welcome, the former spells division and defeat.
8. Are the racists, cranks, and weirdos inside or outside the security cordon? Conference attracts conspiracy theorists, antisemites, and assorted extremists, but a serious party ensures they are shouting from the wilderness, not on conference floor.
9. What flags are we waving? The Union Jack is the flag of the nation we wish to govern. The English, Welsh, and Scottish flags reflect our United Kingdom. The EU flag may speak to our emotional attachment to our neighbours, but it’s best to keep it under wraps. The Ukrainian flag shows our solidarity and support for the heroic resistance to Putin. Anything else, leave it at home.
10. What are the taxi drivers saying? Taxi drivers are usually a helpful barometer of opinion. In Liverpool, they tend to be Labour-leaning, but also sceptical about politics. If you find yourself in a cab, see if the driver feels positive about Labour, or just complains about the extra traffic. Where the self-employed, hard-working, individualistic cabbies are coming round to us, then the nation might follow.
Paul Richards is Labour & Co-op candidate for Sussex police and crime commissioner. This is Paul’s thirty-third annual Labour party conference.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the previous instalment of Paul on Politics, Two Cheers for the House of Lords.