Labour Party Conference: Focused on winning
Oktober 11th, 2023
As the curtain closes on Labour Party Conference 2023 – possibly the last before the next general election – we look at the key themes that businesses should take away.
Last year’s gathering took place against a backdrop of that Liz Truss Budget and a government on the verge of collapse. Labour’s lead in the polls was in ‘crushing landslide’ territory and, perhaps for the first time, there was a real sense of expectation rather than hope. The atmosphere was verging on giddy.
Labour Party Conference 2023 was last year’s older, more mature sibling. The watchword was ‘focus’. Rumours abound that the Shadow Cabinet, backbenchers and PPCs were under strict instructions to limit their refreshments and avoid any potentially compromising situations. It seemed to work; everyone was on their best behaviour.
The message discipline was impressive, and the extensive courting of business by Labour over the last year appeared to have paid off. Businesses were there in their droves, causing some members to mutter that the atmosphere was overly corporate. Senior Labour staffers didn’t mind, though. This was by far the most lucrative conference for the party in recent years, providing an important boost to the coffers ahead of the next election.
In response to the Prime Minister’s backtracking on net zero targets and HS2, shadow ministers confidently and consistently argued for policy stability above all, even if that means making some difficult calls such as not revoking recently awarded oil and gas licenses. In emphasising the economic arguments for ambitious and stable decarbonisation targets to drive private investment, Labour impressed businesses and avoided the trap that Rishi Sunak set last week.
Conference appeared to be a crystalising moment in Labour’s offer to business: we’ll provide the structures, policy certainty and stable government; we expect you to partner with us to drive significant investment. In a “third way” moment that would have made Tony Blair proud, Keir Starmer presented this in his speech as “not state control, not pure free markets…but a genuine partnership”.
The speech, while perhaps not delivered with the same verve and punch as last year’s, presented a clearer vision than we had previously heard from Starmer. That vision is taking shape around the idea of “national renewal”. The central premise of his argument is that the UK is broken and entering an “age of insecurity”, where the forces of technology, economic weakness, movement of people, and climate change combine to demand a remodelling of the British state after 13 years of Conservative neglect.
This is not “sunlit uplands” by any means, more a sober diagnosis of the significant challenges that can be overcome with hard work – and a warning to the party faithful and the country that change will not happen overnight. There was a strong feeling amongst delegates that Labour needs to not just win the next election but win big and govern for at least 10 years.
The big ticket policy in the hour that Starmer spoke had been announced by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves the day before in her surprisingly tubthumping speech. Labour’s plans to radically overhaul the planning system for critical national infrastructure and building 1.5m new homes, including using development corporations to overcome barriers, sound bold and risky given how local objections can cause political headaches.
Alongside this, there was plenty for Labour’s core voters to get their teeth into, from VAT on private schools to the appointment of a Covid corruption commissioner. Naturally this wasn’t enough for some on the left of the party, who would have preferred less talk of fiscal discipline and more radical investment in public services.
But if the aim of the conference was to present the party as united, serious and ready to govern, then Starmer and his team will feel it is mission accomplished. However, while there was strictly no complacency from the party leadership, expectations of party members are running high. The pressure is now on to deliver the majority that they expect, for which winning in Scotland will be key. Anything less will surely be seen as an enormous missed opportunity.
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