Buoyant Labour is beginning to tingle with anticipation at the prospect of taking power | Andrew Rawnsley
Breaking the strict no-complacency rule that was supposed to be in force at the Labour conference, a member of the shadow cabinet said to me: “In his head, Keir can picture himself walking into Number 10.”
At no other time since Labour was removed from office in 2010 has it looked more like a party that is hungry to be in government, believes it can win, and is thinking seriously about what it would do with power. An organisation that was in thrall to Jeremy Corbyn and his unmerry comrades not so long ago has been thoroughly Starmerised. “The party has really changed. They want to win,” remarked a different member of the shadow cabinet at the conclusion of the gathering in Liverpool. Devotees of the last leader were extremely thin on the ground and the conference hall was filled with people much more aligned with the ideas and values of the current management. Angela Raynerin remembrance of the victims of the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in Israel. They applauded when the shadow chancellor heralded “economic credibility” and “fiscal responsibility” and ovated for a leader’s speech which accompanied the promise of “a decade of national renewal” with the warning that it will be a long, hard slog. They put their hands together for after he’d told them that the NHS, most revered of all Labour’s household gods, needs “fundamental and deep” reform.
In one of the few peeps of dissent, trade unions won a vote demanding the, but that felt so unthreatening to the leadership that one senior shadow cabinet member could simply shrug: “It won’t be in the manifesto.”
Another striking development is the increasing boldness with which Labour is thrusting into electoral territories that have traditionally been regarded as Tory strong points. Rachel Reeves presented herself as a chancellor-in-waiting who would be the world’s most unforgiving scourge of wasteful government and the galaxy’s sternest custodian of taxpayers’ money. It was not just by characterising herself as “iron-clad” that she channelled some Margaret Thatcher. “We want our money back,” was another echo of the Iron Lady when the shadow chancellor talked about recovering the billions stolen by Covid frauds. The announcement that a corruption commissioner will chase down the missing moolah speaks to an intent to punish the Conservatives for their record now and to carry on punching the bruise when the Tories are in opposition.
Sir Keir’s speech was his most confident to date. The fool who sneaked on stage at the beginning to shower him with glitter did the Labour leader an unwittingly tremendous favour. After recovering his composure with impressive aplomb, he delivered his trademark “protest or power?” line. Shedding his jacket, he adopted the shirt-sleeves rolled-up look of a man ready to get cracking rebuilding Britain.
He made theto the pebble-dashed semi in which he grew up before positioning Labour as the “party of home ownership”, picking up what was once one of the Conservatives’ most prized calling cards. Saying that he will “ ” through local resistance to housebuilding and the construction of critical infrastructure is more aggressive than we have been generally accustomed to from the Labour leader. By picking this fight, he hopes to earn respect for being willing to do things that are in the national interest even when they will arouse fierce sectional opposition.
It is a basic of how democracy works that Labour can only prevail at the election by persuading people who are past supporters of the Conservatives to switch sides. Yet many Labour folk have often been allergic, and some downright antagonistic, to the idea of making converts of the previously hostile. Call them the “never kissed a Tory” tendency. There didn’t seem to be many of them present in the building when Sir Keir won a mid-speech standing ovation for an explicit appeal to “despairing” Conservative voters to join Labour.
The heavy emphasis on winning is being accompanied by harder thinking about how to ensure a Labour government is the “force for good” he promises and not the dysfunctional shambles we’ve become accustomed to from the Tories. Sue Gray, the former senior civil servant whom Sir Keir recruited as his chief of staff, is attracting glowing reviews after just six weeks in the role. I heard a lot of significant Labour players praise her for “professionalising” the leader’s office and “banging heads together”. One of Labour’s metro mayors went so far as to say “it has been transformative” in the way the leader’s team is communicating with important stakeholders and another called her “Keir’s representative on earth”. Universal admiration in politics is as rare as hen’s teeth. So I expect Ms Gray will have her critics, but they are keeping stumm for now.
The grimness of what they are likely to inherit from the Tories induces shudders in Labour people. “It will be hell,” predicts one senior shadow cabinet member. Yet along with prickles of trepidation there are also tingles of anticipation about the prospect of getting their hands on the levers of power. Ms Reeves plans an early budget that will raise additional funds for public services by imposing VAT on private school fees, abolishing the tax exemptions enjoyed by non-doms, making foreign citizens pay more stamp duty when they buy UK property, and eliminating lucrative tax loopholes exploited by plump felines in private equity and venture capital. There has been some talk that she will backtrack on the latter. I was given the firm impression that she has no intention of doing so.
In the interview with Sir Keir we published last week, he told us all policy will be “bomb-proofed” before Labour writes its manifesto. The idea is to ensure the party doesn’t head into the election promising anything that jeopardises its chances of power or which will prove unworkable in government. The process is getting under way. A so-called “star chamber” has been assembled under the chairmanship of Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general. Every member of the shadow cabinet will have to submit papers before being put to the test on the appeal and viability of their manifesto bids. The star chamber of Tudor times was notorious for the terror instilled in those hauled before it. “I haven’t booked the London dungeon yet,” Mr Ashworth has joked to friends. Before he is done with putting his colleagues on the rack, I expect there will be cross words and hurt feelings among some of the shadow cabinet. That’s unavoidable if this process is to be conducted with the rigour required to shape a programme for government that is both electable and deliverable.
Labour’s growing confidence comes with important caveats. A lot of senior people still regard their hefty opinion poll lead as “unreal” or “soft” and expect it to shrink in the run-up to the election. The party has lost so often it can still be afflicted by what one shadow cabinet member calls “beaten dog syndrome”. Everyone who matters in the Labour hierarchy is acutely conscious of the giant scale of the swing and the colossal haul of parliamentary seats – more than 120 – that must be flipped to get to a Commons majority of just one. They bear what another shadow cabinet member calls “the scar tissue” of going down to defeat at past elections they thought they were on course to win.
There could be a year or more to go before the country is marking ballot papers. “The opinion poll lead now does not tell you what will happen at the election,” warns one of Labour’s most senior strategists. The calamity-strewn and faction-riven Tory conference gave every impression that Rishi Sunak has lost the plot and his party has lost heart in him, but Labour people work on the assumption that the Conservative machine will get its act together to conduct a ferociously anti-Labour campaign. “They will come at us hard. It will be brutal,” predicts one member of the shadow cabinet. The Tories have announced that they will almost double the legal limit on election campaign spending to £35m per party. “Which means they must have the money already,” says one senior Labour figure.
Fear of failure has not been entirely banished from Sir Keir’s party, but a highly successful conference was mostly characterised by rising hope. No sensible Labour person acts as if an election victory is in the bag, but they do sound like people who think they have advanced to within touching distance of power.