By Edward Cleaver, Politics and International Relations, Third Year
Party conference season has come and gone, with the contrasting mood at the Conservative and Labour gatherings an illuminating indicator of where the 2024 general election appears to be heading. The Tory meeting was defined by factional attacks, brazen disregard for collective responsibility, obvious leadership machinations from Cabinet ministers and most concerningly of all, for Rishi Sunak, a broad disinterest in his ambitions, as opposed to a startlingly feverish following of his disgraced predecessor.
In previous years, this disorganised and divisive atmosphere would have been traditionally associated with a Labour Conference, even as early as 2019 when the party was paralysed by attempts to formulate a Brexit policy. The man responsible for devising that solution, has now risen to the top of his party four years on, with Downing Street the only goal for now. As Blair proclaimed on the steps of No.10 the last time Labour was an incoming government, for ‘18 long years, my party has been in opposition’, with Starmer now tantalisingly close to ending 14 long years of Conservative rule.
Regarding the conference itself, any doubts that Starmer has transformed the party into a more technocratic pragmatic project, from the ideological vehicle he inherited, can no longer be exercised. This year, the Left, 6 years on from their most ascendant moment in 2017, now appears marginalised and enfeebled by internal party policies. The legitimacy of some of these approaches are undeniably sceptical, namely than the centralised control of MP selection processes, that have left numerous candidates from the Left of the party off prospective shortlists.
Regardless of this, the lack of visible agitation at the major conference speeches by a coordinated opposition would have relieved Starmer and his team, with the most notable protest a peculiar lone interruption from a lesser-known pressure group during his speech, which did little to destabilise his message. Frequently emphasising the choice between ‘protest or power’ he had undertaken, he provided the implicit justification for the change in policy direction since his victory in 2020, often ignoring conference motions that are not aligned with his stances.
Beneath the overarching and disciplined message that sought to depict the party as a government-in-waiting, the conference provided some insight into the, often vague, policy offerings Labour will propose at the election next year. The party has placed housing promises centrally in their commitments to the public, promising to not only build 1.5 million homes, but resist local opposition to this. Rachel Reeves announced a Covid corruption commissioner, with the intention to recuperate fraudulent funds lost in the pandemic from government contracts and outsourcing. Nevertheless, these announcements, even the now heavily qualified £28 billion green prosperity plan, were all underpinned by stringent adherence to the Shadow Chancellor’s fiscal rules that inform the ‘sustainable’ approach to tax and spending a potential government will take.
Moreover, big business was a prominent presence this year, signalling the more collaborative nature of the relationship with the party in modern times, as opposed to the antagonism of 2015-2019. Google, Amazon, Uber and Goldman Sachs among other influential organisations publicly flourished their capabilities, setting up various stalls around the centre, while major consultancy firm KPMG ran a fringe meeting with the New Labour pressure group, Progress. These various groups having such a platform just five years ago is unimaginable and acts as a further indication of the overhaul policy undergone since Starmer’s ascent.
Turning to the future, the extent of Labour’s advantage at this stage should not be understated. The party is polling around 20% ahead of the Conservatives, and often higher, with the Tories struggling to get above 25% - an extreme decline from the 42% at the 2019 election. Most experts currently forecast a Labour majority around the astronomical level of Blair’s in 1997. Crucially, the Tory polls ratings are entrenched by pervasive distrust and dislike of a government that religiously flouted their own lockdown rules, crashed the British economy as an ideological experiment, is continuously embroiled in sickening scandals and lacks any coherent strategy other than populist division.
Nonetheless, there are undeniably potential fractures that may show the instability of Labour’s lead. Starmer remains a broadly unpopular leader, despite effectively capitalising on Conservative chaos, while the electorate do not appear particularly inspired, or more worryingly, aware of the proposals Labour is providing. Moreover, recent weeks have understandably elevated embedded tensions within the party on relations between Israel and Palestine, which commentators like Andrew Marr have viewed as the biggest threat to his leadership so far.
Although these fissures, which may potentially widen as events development and poll ratings narrow somewhat - as they usually do in favour of a governing party before an election, are certainly problematic and demand diligent management by Starmer and the Labour leadership, the party is currently the closest it has been to Downing Street since its eviction by the coalition. At the end of the day, the turnover of three Conservative Prime Ministers since 2019, embodying the complete dysfunction of the party, may simply be enough for Labour to sweep to power. Winning by default might be all that is required.
Featured Image: The English News/Flickr
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