With all the eventfulness of the last few weeks, of a new Prime Minister and indeed a new Head of State, the Labour Party has been rather out of the headlines. If this has left you feeling bereft and pining for the soothing nasal tones of Sir Keir Starmer, you’re in luck, because the Party’s Annual Conference is upon us, with all the internal drama, Tory bashing, and new pithy slogans we have come to expect from the event.
The Labour leader has two key challenges facing him between now and the next General Election. He did very well at sledging Boris Johnson, forensically highlighting all the reasons the old PM was not performing well enough. And it was mission accomplished on that front – Johnson has taken his place on the mounting scrap heap of recent Tory leaders. But now Sir Keir needs to pivot seamlessly onto Truss, and make sure that all the damage he did to Boris Johnson does not end with Boris Johnson. The Tories are excellent at shedding their skin; Starmer has to work tirelessly to ensure they cannot get away with that this time.
The second challenge is about his own offer. We have heard lots about what the Government has not been doing over the last few years, but not enough about what Labour will do. People within the Party are getting a little impatient with his cautious, incremental approach, and it is not just the left who wish he would be a little bolder. It is time to see an unchained, visionary, political leader, rather than the careful, details driven lawyer.
On the first of these challenges, Starmer has some pretty obvious attack lines. The mini budget was emphatic and courageous, but it was also highly divisive, and left lots of open goals for Labour to attack. Tax cuts for the rich, bankers bonuses being prioritised over help for working people, and much of it funded by borrowing which ordinary folk will have to pay for. If you want to play a bit of conference bingo, it will be: ‘Same ol Tories’, ‘hand outs for their mates’, ‘nothing for you and I’, ‘top 1% laughing’, ‘disdain for working people’. It is the classic drum to bang, the old school class warfare, but it could be potentially effective, especially at difficult economic times like these.
As for setting out his own vision, Starmer’s route is less certain. In his first interview of the conference season, Sir Keir sat down with Laura Kuenssberg and to be fair, gave some clear answers on what Labour would do. They would reinstate the 45p top rate of tax but would keep the cut to the basic rate. On energy, they would freeze bills by going after the big energy providers’ profits, rather than subsidising them, but a freeze would be 6 months rather than the two years promised by the Government. So some clarity yes, but it is all just a bit middle of the road and underwhelming. Why the Labour Party can’t bring itself to match the duration promised in the Government’s energy promise for instance, is a mystery.
But policy aside, the other problem is Starmer himself. He is still just a bit boring. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng have been radical and have unveiled their radicalism with some gusto. Kwarteng’s booming charisma at the despatch box earlier this week was impressive, and he managed to make some really quite controversial policies sound like a compelling ideological vision. Starmer seems less able to make his moderate, incremental approach, sound like anything other than a moderate, incremental approach. He needs to find a way to frame centrism as radicalism, as Blair did so well in 1997. How does he sum up his vision? What is his one sentence pitch? His Third Way, his Big Society. You win an election when you illustrate a new vision which seems coherent and emotive. What is it?
Last year’s Labour Party conference was all about distancing the new leadership from the worst elements of Corbynism and the left of the Party. This year it is about being outward looking, addressing the public, and pitching an alternative. Labour will attack Truss well, but can they present their own compelling vision? Over to you, Mr Starmer.