Labour conference sets stage for potential return to power
Experts say the primary objective of Labour’s meet is a simple one: do nothing that jeopardises its lead.
Labour leader Keir Starmer (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
LABOUR gathers this weekend for its annual conference, with the centre-left party currently on course to return to power in a general election expected next year.
Labour, led by Keir Starmer, goes into the four-day event — which starts on Sunday (8) in Liverpool, northwest England — well ahead of the governing Tories in opinion polls.
After this week’s chaotic Tory conference, which hampered prime minister Rishi Sunak’s bid to kick-start a resurgence of his beleaguered party, experts say the primary objective of Labour’s meet is a simple one: do nothing that jeopardises its lead.
“The main thing will be don’t cock up. No hostages to fortune, no signs of dissension,” said political scientist Anand Menon.
Labour last held the keys to 10 Downing Street in 2010 and is readying itself to govern again following a vote that must be held by January 2025 at the latest.
Starmer, 61, has revived the fortunes of a party that suffered a landslide defeat to the Tories at the last election in 2019 under former far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, by pulling it back to the centre ground.
A recent European trip, including a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron, was seen by many as Starmer projecting himself as a prime minister-in-waiting.
Labour has enjoyed double-digit poll leads for months, with Britain locked in a cost-of-living crisis and plagued by strikes, and with Tory infighting leading to three prime ministers in little over a year.
Recent surveys, though, have showed the gap narrowing after the announcement of populist policies by Sunak that attempt to draw clear dividing lines between the Tories and their opponents.
Starmer, a former chief state prosecutor, is regularly accused of being too cautious, and observers are keen to see whether he adopts a bolder stance in Liverpool.
“The only interesting thing I think will be the degree to which Starmer feels pressured into trying to be a bit more assertive in terms of spelling out a vision,” Menon said.
Starmer has dropped several pledges made during his successful 2020 leadership bid, including plans to scrap university tuition fees, citing the economic climate.
Labour has also backed away from tax increases, allowing Conservatives to accuse Starmer of flip-flopping on several issues.
Starmer has ruled out taking Britain back into the European Union but has pledged to seek “a much better deal for the UK” with the bloc. The post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation agreement struck by former premier Boris Johnson is due for review in 2025.
In July, he laid out his party’s “five missions for a better Britain” that will form the backbone of its election manifesto.
They include making Britain a green energy superpower and building a national health service “fit for the future”.
Political experts expect the Labour leader to put more flesh on the bones of these policies when he speaks at the conference Tuesday, which could be the last annual gathering of the party before voters go to the polls.
“One would expect one or two quite symbolic policies from the conference, things to associate Starmer with over the next few months. I think that will be important,” said Karl Pike at Queen Mary University of London.
But with opinion polls suggesting that only Labour can blow the party’s chances now, Starmer may feel it is wiser to keep his cards close to his chest until nearer the election, which experts have speculated could occur in the spring or autumn of 2024.
Economic constraints mean Labour may also be reluctant to commit to major spending pledges they might not be able to meet if elected.
Starmer will also have to decide whether to engage with the Tories over so-called “culture wars” on immigration and gender rights, which home secretary Suella Braverman ramped up with her conference speech on Tuesday (3).
“The question for him is how safety first is he going to be, at the conference and over the next few months,” said Pike.
“How much is it going to be about what Labour wants to do for the country? And how much is it going to be about just attacking the Toris?”