Did we see a Government in waiting in Liverpool? Some thoughts on how the 2022 Labour conference went from our team on the ground in the north-west
By Jack Mathias
No Labour conference ever starts smoothly and although this year’s was no different with internal rows about the slogan and singing the national anthem, for once, everyone then seemed to behave for what could be seen as one of Labour’s most successful conferences since they were last in Government.
Starmer’s big win arguably came at the very beginning of the conference on Sunday, as a rendition of ‘God Save the King’ was sung without any noticeable backlash from members. This was an early indicator of a Labour conference mostly free of the hiccups witnessed in previous years, notably shadow cabinet member Andy McDonald’s resignation in 2021, the covid-induced online conference of 2020, and the internal post-Brexit strife at the back end of Corbyn’s tenure. On the penultimate day, however, comments made by Rupa Huq about Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng during a conference fringe event triggered her suspension of the whip. This slightly tainted an otherwise smooth, largely upbeat few days against the backdrop of a plummeting pound after Friday’s mini budget, something that was frequently a source of mirth – albeit coupled with bemusement – for many of this year’s conference attendees.
Even the hotly anticipated issue of proportional representation did not stoke the political fires some may have expected. 140 local parties voted to drop the first-past-the-post system into the Labour manifesto, but this was something Starmer had categorically ruled out beforehand. While the idea has previously been flirted with by the Labour leadership, it is clearly not a priority for its prospective first term. That being said, much of the membership – as well as a number of Labour big-hitters, including Andy Burnham - support PR, and it will inevitably be something the party will have to address head-on should they get into power. For now, though, Starmer’s gentle dismissal appears to have gone down without too much of a fuss.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves had a relatively simple task in selling Labour’s economic vision against the so-far disastrous one of the current governments. So it wasn’t particularly surprising that her speech avoided any big, potentially risky policy commitments that may have invited unwanted scrutiny. Indeed, while plans to increase the minimum wage and set up a national economic council were revealed, Reeves’ flagship proposal was the relatively straightforward task of reversing the dropping of the 45% income tax for high earners. It is symbolic of Labour’s wider approach that the speech’s focal point was a critique of Conservative policy; there appears to be no sense of urgency to map out a comprehensive fiscal alternative just yet, with the current economic crisis itself sufficient in promoting Labour as the party of responsible governance. The late night conversations in the Pullmans Bar suggested the party will need to eventually put forward some positive and fresh policy proposals if it wishes to have a shot at the next general election, since winning can’t just be based on reactions to failing Conservative policy.
On the last day of conference, Starmer began the main event astutely with a promise to introduce a Hillsborough Law as one of his first actions as Prime Minister, something that was met with cheers and applause both within Liverpool’s conference hall and beyond. He then quickly turned to the UK’s bleak economic outlook, describing a “cloud of anxiety” for working people in contrast to the country’s top earners, whose recent tax break was the perfect symbol for Starmer to utilise. It was no surprise to see the windfall tax – the policy Labour has centred much of its identity around in recent months – get the first mention with respect to the cost of living crisis, and the Labour leader took full advantage of the fact that it was his party that initially called for a freeze to energy prices. This was supplemented by a new Green Prosperity Plan, which would include a commitment for 100% clean power by 2030, investment in home insulation and a publicly-owned Great British Energy start-up to invest in green technologies.
The speech was much wider ranging than the energy crisis, however. There was strong reception to a raft of commitments for increasing NHS staff, for example, including an extra 7,500 medical students each year. Home ownership was also given a fair amount of attention, as Starmer reminisced about his family’s “pebble-dashed semi” to introduce a rather non-specific 70% homeownership target and pledge to support first-time buyers. Notable issues that were left out include devolution, something the leadership has consistently championed from since the beginning, as well as transport.
It was less the policies and more the short declarations that garnered the greatest response, however. Allegiance to NATO, dealing with antisemitism and support for Ukraine were easy pickings that Starmer took full advantage of, much to the pleasure of the audience. He also made sure to point out that, like himself, the Prime Minister was also a Remainer, a fact he clearly welcomes after the frequent attacks he received when facing Boris Johnson.
The speech came to a close in fairly bold fashion; Starmer pledged that there would be no deal with the SNP “under any circumstances” and claimed that increased prosperity “is a roadblock to independence”. His speech was telling of a Labour party growing in confidence about its chances in the next general election, as it becomes more convinced of its ability to win a majority even without the need for a coalition. Most of all though, Starmer’s relaxed delivery style was a definite improvement on his previous efforts. Now that the flamboyant Boris is off the scene and he has an opponent in the PM who is arguably even more wooden than him, the speech showed that it is Keir who seems to now be the more interesting party leader, not something ever previously said of him one might argue...
It was ultimately a Labour Party conference held at a highly favourable moment; fresh polling from YouGov released on Monday revealed the party has the largest lead over the Tories since 2001, and you could sense the real belief that a Labour government is in near sight. It was this context - coupled with the fact that there remains quite some time before a manifesto needs to be formed – that shaped a confident yet not overly-ambitious Labour conference.