David Cameron, as UK prime minister, once offered some unsolicited advice to his opposite number: “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.” When he was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn occasionally, reluctantly, listened. But his successor Sir Keir Starmer has wholeheartedly embraced Cameron’s recommendation.
The standout moment of this week’s Labour conference in Liverpool was not the opposition leader’s keynote speech, as solid as it was. Nor the gaggles of besuited lobbyists whose presence suggested business is preparing for the party to head back into power. It was the opening montage, when the conference paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth II and belted out “God Save The King”.
Members of Starmer’s inner circle were thrilled, having been unsure if their attempt at unabashed patriotism would come off. “That was the longest minute of my life,” one of his closest aides remarked of the silent tribute to the late monarch. “But that was a critical moment, to show that Labour had really changed, that it wasn’t ashamed of the country it wants to govern, and it is Keir’s party now.”
The effervescent mood was buoyed by a 17-point polling lead over Liz Truss’s shambolic Conservatives. There were no major gaffes, and every senior figure was resolutely on message, cementing the impression given by the leader of steady competence. For the first time in years, Labour is starting to believe that it can finally return to office.
Since the last annual conference, Labour has crucially become plausible as a party of government once more. The historic defeat in the 2019 election is already feeling like ancient history.
The party has been hugely aided by the departure of Boris Johnson, especially in the “red wall” seats in England’s former industrial heartlands. Truss lacks Johnson’s deep connection with pro-Brexit voters, with the result that many marginal seats won by the Tories at the last election have come back into play. Starmer’s careful messaging on the EU, along with his removal of the party whip from Corbyn, means they are now there for the taking.
Yet, as one senior Labour figure from the north of England remarks: “We still have an emotional connection issue. The red wall is in play, but it isn’t naturally coming over. We need to find the right short-term and medium-term messages.”
The other challenge for Starmer, and a far bigger one, is articulating an emotive vision. He has refined his critique of a dozen years of Tory government. “Don’t forget, don’t forgive,” as he said of the current economic turbulence. Indeed, senior Tories concede that Truss’s economic missteps are an inflection point. “Last Friday was the day we lost the next election,” one minister says.
Starmer described that upcoming poll as another “Labour moment”, but there was something missing in his presentation of it. In 1945, Clement Attlee told the story of a “new Jerusalem” after the second world war. In 1964, Harold Wilson sold the country on the “white heat” of technological change. And in 1997, Tony Blair promised to modernise Britain. Starmer has yet to find a comparably compelling narrative.
The party’s conference slogan this year, “a fairer, greener future”, sounds more akin to an advert for detergent than the watchword of a party ready to take power. But his aides are not concerned, observing that other slightly wooden left of centre leaders are winning across the western world — from Anthony Albanese in Australia to Olaf Scholz in Germany.
Labour feels it is on a glide path to power, but it should beware complacency, for all the clinking of champagne glasses at conference. The default electoral outcome of the last century is that the Conservatives win and Labour loses. The party cannot assume it will prevail next time purely because Truss’s Tories are digging themselves ever deeper into the mire.