Labour’s 2020 conference should have been a chance to gather the Party together, check how the wounds from the general election are healing, and most importantly, rally the party faithful in advance of a key set of elections in 2021. It was also a rare chance for Sir Keir Starmer to introduce himself to the public on a national stage. However, having to do this online, away from the bustling Conference environment isn’t ideal.
Nevertheless, the Party grasped the opportunity to press home their core message. The strapline “A New Leadership” highlighted the positioning Keir’s team are doing to show how the new leader is a credible alternative to Boris Johnson as PM, but also how the Corbyn era is over and the Party has changed. This is important as Labour seek to appeal to voters who have turned away from them and ask to be given another chance. For Keir’s speech, no opportunity was lost in underlining this message. His speech from a red wall seat, in front of a literal red wall was aimed at those key voters who have been deserting the party in the last few elections. References to patriotism, security and the importance of winning elections were surprisingly striking, after years of notable absence from the rhetoric of Corbyn’s Labour. The message was stark, Labour had deserved to lose the last election, but they have changed and want to be heard – and this time they really want to win.
Keir attacked the Government for incompetence and spoke of the need for the party to “come out of the shadows” so they can change things in government. The energetic conference programme was packed full of policy discussions, speeches, training sessions, fringe events, and even rallies- showing maybe not everything has changed. The well-established Business Forum showed plenty of engagement from frontbenchers across the board and was opened by Keir himself, not something the previous Labour leader did and an indication of how Labour is much happier to speak to business now.
It was interesting to see how Labour are attempting to position themselves economically. They are very aware of the importance of economic credibility and want to be able to counter accusations that they are not to be trusted with the economy. But, with the Government spending billions on measures around Covid-19, somewhat stealing Labour’s clothes, this can’t be about spending more. Instead their focus was on talking about where the money is spent; with targeted support such as the Shadow Chancellor’s three steps to “recover jobs, retrain workers and rebuild business”. They attacked the Chancellor for his “cavalier” attitude and wasteful spending, such as on the proposed job retention bonuses – don’t expect this to be the last you’ve heard on this. Labour will be looking for opportunities to show they have priorities and can make choices, while still being in favour of jobs and support.
At this point in the electoral cycle, with no General Election due until 2024, it is not unusual that Labour did not set out a raft of detailed policy promises. However, they did speak about core issues such as investing in public services – including social care, a green economic recovery and creating the jobs of the future. While Labour’s current policy is to oppose any tax rises during the pandemic, Starmer hasn’t ruled out having to be bold on the tax landscape in the future to rebalance the UK’s economy and invest in those public services. After their defeat in 2019, there will need to be a process internally to see what should be kept and what should be rethought from the manifesto. Keir himself was elected on a platform that included many Corbyn-era policies and has promised not to stray too far from this legacy. The left certainly won’t let him forget the promises he made to them. Many will be watching to see how he walks this line, and how much COVID will change the landscape. We have seen in recent years how the opposition’s policies can influence those of the Government and now is the time to be engaging with the Labour Party as they start the process toward the next manifesto.