Labour needs to tell a compelling story and persuade the public to listen if it is to be able to reverse its 2019 defeat.
Danny Rye, Associate Professor of Politics
When Keir Starmer took over the leadership of the Labour Party two years ago he was asked what his ambition for his leadership was. ’To win the next election’ he replied. Few believed it possible, many dismissed it. The task seemed too great.
Recovering from its huge 2019 defeat meant firstly, discipline, getting a divided and fractious party’s house in order; second, communication, talking outwards to the concerns of the wider electorate; thirdly, persuasion, getting voters to listen to Labour’s arguments. Only then, might they have a chance to overcome such a huge electoral hurdle.
It was not an auspicious start. Starmer’s first “conference” speech in 2020 was given online to an empty room, thanks to Covid restrictions. His second, just a year ago, was marred by heckling. He was criticised for being ‘wooden’. Perhaps he would have to be satisfied with preparing the ground for another leader to take the prize of power a couple of elections down the line.
But what a difference a year makes. Very few conference speeches are ever remembered, and this one is unlikely to be an exception, but they do tell us something about the state of the party. In the 1950s and the 1980s, Hugh Gaitskell and Neil Kinnock respectively found themselves having to focus on internal party squabbles. In the 1990s, a more disciplined party meant Tony Blair could focus more directly on appealing to voters, and voters were starting to listen.
In his speech in Liverpool, Starmer referred several times to 1945, 1964 and 1997. Key ‘Labour moments’, when the party took power. The 1945 Labour Party under Clem Attlee, had a vision for a fairer society where decent health care, housing and social support was available for all who needed it. In 1964, Harold Wilson presented a dynamic picture of a modern, technologically driven Britain forged in the ‘white hot heat of technology’. In 1997, Tony Blair talked of a ‘New Britain’ in which social justice, strong public services and economic efficiency were not mutually exclusive.
Each of these leaders had a compelling story to tell to a listening public. The question is, does Starmer? Is now a ‘Labour moment’?
I would argue that much of what Starmer’s speech did on Tuesday was to lay credible foundations for just such a story. There were four key elements to this:
Firstly, reassurance on the economy: Labour would be a responsible government, based on ‘sound money and economic management’, in contrast to the Conservatives who have ‘lost control’ and created a ‘cloud of anxiety’. It is Tory ideology that is ‘a barrier to growth’, he said, and ‘the only way out of this is with a Labour government’.
Secondly, affirming the party’s commitment to aspiration: providing ‘the gift of opportunity’ for working people to better themselves, to own their own homes, to be secure in work, to live in a fairer and greener society, to sort out underfunded, under-resourced public services.
Thirdly, neutralising electorally dangerous issues: there will be ‘no deal with the SNP’, Labour would control immigration using a points-based system, and it would ‘make Brexit work’.
Fourthly, the headline grabbing policy-announcement: ‘Great British Energy’, a publicly owned enterprise, would focus on developing and investing in renewable energy. This idea smartly links together the cost of living crisis, climate change, energy security, jobs, and wealth creation with a dash of ‘made in Britain’ patriotism and activist-pleasing public ownership. The hall loved it.
Finally, and perhaps wisely, there was a note of caution. This would be tough, there are difficult choices to make. A new government will not be able to do everything right away. Patience and determination would be needed to address the damage left by the current government, but we must ‘turn our collars up and face the storm’ and ‘run towards the challenges of tomorrow’. Nonetheless, there was optimism: a Labour government would make Britain ‘a country which is the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in.’
And optimism is definitely required: to win a parliamentary majority of just one at the next election, Labour needs to gain 123 additional seats across the UK. The skewed electoral system makes it harder for Labour to win where they need to. It would take the kind of swing that parties rarely, if ever, get, and SNP dominance in Scotland makes the task even harder.
Nonetheless, of three tasks outlined – discipline, communication and persuasion, this week’s party conference shows that the first has been completed, the second has begun and the third now seems plausible. To meet Starmer’s ambition for government, to make this a ‘Labour moment’ they must now tell that compelling story.
This article was originally published by Liverpool Hope University’s ‘Expert Comment’ page.