This week in their Liverpool conference, Labour have leaned heavily on their Blairite past. They promised to be tough on the causes of crime. Every shadow minister seemed to have their policy priority boiled down to a single word repeated three times a la Blair’s ‘education education education’. I happened to listen to Brian Cox on Conan O’Brien’s podcast, talking about Things Can Only Get Better. ‘I was wrong about that,’ said Cox. ‘Things can get a lot worse.’ But no one told these delegates. Serious, earnest and practical, they are preparing for a potential victory. They aren’t taking it for granted, but while Labour people were genuinely confused by the popularity of Boris Johnson – whom they viscerally loathed – and were unable to find strategies to counter him, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are opponents they understand.
Spirit of 14
Many delegates thought that the atmosphere was unlike anything they’d encountered at Labour conference before. There was less of a general vibe of anger – at the Conservatives, at other delegates, at Tom Watson – and more of a steely determination to get to work – whether at campaigning or, should Labour be successful, at rebuilding the country.
I’d been here before: in 2014, when the party allowed itself to believe that Ed Miliband was preparing for power. Exhausted on the back of the Scottish independence referendum, delegates gathered in Manchester. Front benchers discussed the detail of prospective policy in fringes, in full expectation that they’d have to deliver within the next few months. Representatives of businesses stalked the exhibition halls. Labour seemed a little worn down by power before they had even started. We all know what happened next, and Labour has never returned to Manchester.
But if the business-like style was similar to 2014, the energy was not. Labour is tired of opposition, not of office. It is bursting with a wish to get on and do things. Of course, Ed Miliband is back on the ascendant, rehabilitated, highly visible and audible. Similarly visible was Peter Mandelson. Time will tell whether the next general election gives us a re-run of 1997, 2015…or 1992.
Labour have learned a lot from Lynton Crosby. They really are clearing the barnacles off the boat. That means that anything that is a potential distraction or red flag to voters gets thrown off. That meant a quick ejection for Rupa Huq. From a policy perspective, though, if campaigners hoped that Labour would save the obesity strategy – under threat from the libertarians now in Downing Street and at DHSC – they’d be disappointed. Wes Streeting wants to ‘work with industry’ to see what can be done to reduce obesity. Ask Caroline Flint how a partnership approach worked out with the alcohol industry.
To my mind, the leadership has electoral reform down as a barnacle. The Conservatives will present any potential reform as in some way illegitimate. Perhaps it’s something to look at in a second term. At which point, of course, the Conservatives will present it as illegitimate. Perhaps Labour should take a leaf out of the Conservatives’ book (ie their 2019 manifesto) and suggest something about ‘taking steps to strengthen democracy’. What could go wrong?
All the fun of Conference
Should Labour win the election, we’ll at least be free of one of the most irritating into lines, uttered by far too many shadow ministers. It went a bit like: ’Hello, I’m the shadow secretary of state for paperclips. It’s a great title, except the shadow bit ha ha.’ That the audience almost always dutifully laughed says something about the quality of jokes on offer this year.
I don’t know what music you associate with Keir Starmer. Stormzy, perhaps, or Ed Sheeran. But for those of us of a certain age, the track played as Starmer left the stage will now be his themetune. It’s an absolute banger. Perhaps in 25 years’ time, Johnny Marr will go on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend to discuss Spirit Power and Soul. If you can’t wait that long, here it is.