Annual conferences matter to opposition parties much more than to those in government. Governments are on show every day. For opposition parties, conferences are an opportunity to impress by setting the national agenda for a few days. In our personalised politics, that means lots of Keir Starmer this week following (with somewhat less exposure) Ed Davey last week.
For the Lib Dems, the priority was to get some good and respectful coverage after a year of meagre media pickings and to demonstrate continuing relevance after a third bad general election result.
The party opted to go for Covid caution by holding their conference virtually, and presented two simple messages. The first is that the way forward, at least in England, is to build on the breakthrough at the Chesham and Amersham by-election by winning in “blue wall” seats with a similar demographic. This involves assembling a coalition of the party’s natural supporters, tactical Labour voters and moderate Conservatives who are disillusioned with the Johnson government. There may be 20 to 30 additional seats where this is a realistic aim.
The second message was to answer the question “what are the Lib Dems for?”, now that “stopping Brexit” is no longer the answer. The party chose to focus on schools, with a voucher scheme to give families a choice as to how to use money to catch up after the Covid disruption. Coupled with Ed Davey’s personal commitment to carers, based on his personal experience, these are a couple of well-chosen priorities which now need endless repetition to stick in the public mind.
For Labour, the challenge is altogether more enormous. They need to turn around the oil tanker of negative public opinion about Keir Starmer, and to erode the remorseless Tory lead, which seems to persist no matter how many errors and disasters Boris Johnson presides over.
Starmer’s background as a non-political public prosecutor, in effect a civil servant, is a poor preparation for the bear pit of party politics. He has little of the oratorical flair and charisma which helped Neil Kinnock, and, later, Tony Blair rebuild the enthusiasm for Labour after its civil war and defeats in the 1980s. His main campaigning experience was as a strong Remainer, which he now sees as a liability in the Brexit-leaning red wall seats he has to reclaim. Many on the left of the party and some on the right are willing him to fail.
His first big task has been to shift the party away from the Corbynite left. According to a Savanta/ComRes survey, 20 per cent of Labour voters (and 32 per cent of the public) think the party is still “too left wing”, 22 per cent of the party and 16 per cent of the public think it is “too right wing”, and only 40 per cent of Labour voters (30 per cent of the public) think it is “about right”. The conclusions are obvious and Starmer is acting accordingly.
His biggest problem, however, is persuading his party and the country that he can lead Labour to victory in the next election when the electoral arithmetic suggests that, without Scotland, the task is extremely difficult. Like the manager of Norwich City, off to play at Liverpool with a squad depleted by injuries, he must ignore the odds, suspend rational judgement and pray for a miracle.
Unfortunately for him, miracles in politics are rarer than in football. The odds could, though, be shortened through an implicit or explicit non-aggression pact with the Lib Dems and Greens. The poll cited above suggests that, amongst Labour voters as well as the public at large, such an approach would considerably strengthen Labour’s chances. But party tribalism has required him to denounce the whole idea of alliances with other parties.
In the world of miracles, great value is attached to visions. Starmer is routinely attacked for lacking one. He probably takes the sensible view that politicians with visions should see a psychiatrist. But he has been persuaded to put pen to paper and inspire the world with his visionary prospectus – the Starmer version of The Audacity of Hope. But he isn’t Obama and his long essay has gone down like a lead balloon. I know the feeling, having been persuaded as Lib Dem party leader to put my “vision” in a pamphlet. Most of the copies are still in my attic and even my best friends didn’t read it.
He hasn’t made life any easier for himself by picking a fight on the voting system to choose party leaders. Facing fierce opposition, he then compromised with a weaker proposal. The public isn’t interested in these incomprehensible, internal, process issues. The party anoraks adore them, but usually act to defend the status quo. His one achievement – to get a minimum threshold of 20 per cent of MPs to nominate leadership contenders – will protect him from the “hard left”, but not from a more probable challenge from his deputy Angela Rayner.
Ms Rayner has become a problem. She has a very strong backstory and personal appeal, and she makes little secret of the idea that she could do the job of leader better than Keir Starmer. She qualifies in spades for the over-used label, “authentic”.
But while calling Tories “scum” will enhance her appeal inside the Labour Party, the wider public prefers civility to abuse dressed up in humour, something that’s usually Boris Johnson’s forte. She might reflect that the great Aneurin Bevan’s achievements – notably founding the NHS – were obscured for non-Socialists at the time by his description of Tories as “vermin”.
Two other impressive Labour women are also stealing the show. Rachel Reeves is economically literate and influential. She will be key to Starmer’s success or otherwise in persuading the party of the ideologically uncomfortable idea that two plus two equals four. Another is Rosie Duffield who won and held the Canterbury seat, but stayed away from the conference after being threatened online by trans activists.
The fact that tomorrow’s speech is described as “make or break” is ominous. I only recall David Cameron’s memorising a speech in front of a less critical Tory conference as a “make”. The “breaks’’ include Ed Miliband forgetting his lines, Theresa May’s cough and collapsing scenery, and my own verbal slip during a joke, which became the only part of the speech to get any coverage. A visiting fly, a heckler or a misspeak can easily wreck such a big and hyped occasion.
I would be looking for two commitments of substance. The first is for Starmer to have the courage to say that Brexit chickens are coming home to roost in the form of a lack of lorry drivers and disrupted food supplies. Labour (and the Lib Dems) are lagging in public opinion on this. The parties need to move beyond what Alistair Campbell calls the “omerta” around Brexit and support a rebuilt, closer association with the EU. The skill will be to do that without insulting Brexit voters.
The second is a nod towards the idea that the Tories can only be defeated if there is extensive tactical voting and tacit cooperation in England between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens. The most obvious step would be for Labour to support electoral reform. Without it, there could be a Conservative government indefinitely. Sadly, the conference, in the shape of the big unions, rejected a commitment to change favoured by 80 per cent of Labour members and most voters.
In all probability, Starmer’s speech will neither make nor break him. He could, however, be broken by a leadership bid before the next election by Ms Rayner or, after a likely election defeat, by an avenging angel from the north, perhaps Andy Burnham. He has little to lose by being brave.