Labour faithful descend on Brighton for Keir Starmer’s first in-person party conference as leader
How does Labour plot a path back to power?
The opposition gathers in Brighton today for its annual conference nursing its wounds from four election defeats on the bounce and facing the daunting prospect of trying to overturn the Tories’ 80-seat majority.
It marks Keir Starmer’s first in-person conference as Labour leader as last year’s annual gathering was conducted online due to the pandemic.
Mr Starmer will deliver a major speech on the Wednesday – and there will be plenty to keep him busy over the five-day gathering.
Here are ten things the party needs to do if it is to have any chance of winning the next general election.
Have a story to tell
The good news is Labour is a party rooted in strong values. The bad news is they have few policies on which to hang those values.
Nobody is expecting the party to produce a fully-costed manifesto this far out from a general election. But voters would like a taster of what Labour would do in power.
Until Keir Starmer has something to say he will remain vulnerable to the Tory attack that he is carping on the sidelines while they get on with the business of government.
The Labour leader urgently needs a story to tell of how his party will improve people’s lives and transform the fortunes of the country.
Be more nimble
Opposition is hard. It is especially demoralising when you are up against a party with an 80-seat majority.
All opposition parties face the same Catch-22: you cannot get a fair hearing because people are sceptical you can win power but you cannot win power unless you get a fair hearing.
Labour needs to be quicker to seize the few opportunities it gets.
When major news events occur, such as the energy crisis, then it should be on the front foot saying how they would do things differently. Lead, don’t follow.
Be more welcoming
At some point Labour forgot the basic rule of politics – to gain power you need to win people over to your side.
That means welcoming people with whom you may disagree, including Tory voters.
Fairly or unfairly the perception of Labour is of a party that has become a haven for the self-righteous, the worthy and the woke rather than an organisation that represents all sections of society.
The party has been better at preaching than reaching out.
It needs to starting building bridges so former voters can feel comfortable returning to the party.
Obviously, this is easier said than done.
In some areas, such as health and education, Labour is still trusted by the voters but in others, notably the economy and immigration, they have lost the confidence of the public.
There has been some progress since Starmer became leader but more must be done to prove that Labour can once again be trusted with the country’s finances.
Stop fighting internal battles
Labour has always been a broad church. When in power this can be something to celebrate but in opposition this can be a liability.
In recent years the congregation has spent more time engaged in feuds and bloodletting than in singing with one voice.
Rather than seeking converts, they have preferred to hunt dissenters.
Instead of attacking the Tories, they have spent more time attacking each other.
Those who called for unity under previous leaderships may wish to start practising what they used to preach.
Broaden the palate
If the Labour Party does not stand up for the vulnerable, the poorest and the voiceless then it has no purpose.
As Harold Wilson said, Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing.
It is right that the opposition holds the Government to account on poverty and social security.
But Labour cannot be seen as exclusively as the party of welfare and the NHS.
Issues such as the technological revolution, the changing face of work, and law and order also matter to voters yet Labour has so far had little to say on these subjects.
You cannot please everyone
Yes, elections are won by those parties with the broadest appeal but you have to realise you cannot please everyone.
Voters have an instinctive ability to tell when a politician is saying something for the sake of it rather than because they believe it.
Certain sections of the public may not always agree with you but they have more respect for someone who sticks to their beliefs than someone who tries to pretend they are something they are not.
Labour’s contortions over Brexit demonstrated there is much to be lost and little to be gained by trying to sit on the fence.
Remind people of your record
Labour governments can make a difference.
In power Labour introduced the Equal PayAct, Sure Start, the Equality Act, the national minimum wage and Sex Discrimination Act (to name a few).
If you spend your time trashing your record in government don’t be surprised if voters start to share that opinion.
If you take pride in what you achieved then voters will be reminded of why they once voted for you.
The former leader of the Transport and General Workers Union Ron Todd once said: “What do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say ‘let me take you out of your misery, brother’.”
Labour has a great story to tell on aspiration, it just forgets to say it.
The party needs to remind people how its policies have helped lift people out of poverty, given them an education and opened doors they thought were closed.
Unite the Kingdom
If the Tories insist on playing the divisive card, Labour needs to deal the unity one.
The vast majority of Britons are fed up with culture wars, arguments over Brexit and the constant attempts to play off one part of society against another.
The temptation is engage with the Conservative games. A better strategy would be to present yourselves as unifying force that can heal the wounds the Tories have opened.