Labour Party Conference: Recap

Whilst the Conservatives spent much of their conference jockeying for position and deciding what direction to take in the post-Sunak era, the Labour Conference was an opportunity for Sir Kier Starmer and his cabinet-in-waiting to convince the public that they would be better off under a new Labour administration.

Fresh from a by-election win in Scotland, and with more than a ten-point lead in the polls, Labour has positioned itself as a safe, stable pair of hands to lead the UK out of recent challenges rather than as the radical party that has been the approach in more recent times.

A decade of national renewal 

Sir Kier Starmer’s speech on Tuesday afternoon was his big pitch to be Prime Minister, and to challenge the narrative that people do not really know what he stands for. It did not get off to the best start as a protestor jumped up on stage and covered the Labour leader in glitter, allowing Starmer to quip that this is why he has changed his Party from one of protest to one of power.

Setting out his plans for a ‘decade of national renewal,’ Starmer spoke about rebuilding Britain, increasing the housing stock by 1.5 million homes and ‘building the new generation of towns.’ He criticised the Tories for their thirteen years in power and contrasted the achievements of previous Labour Governments with the lack of progress by the current Conservative one.

Details were short but higher growth, safer streets, more police officers and fixing the NHS were all mentioned as things that Starmer would do as PM, and whilst attacking the Conservatives for cancelling HS2, he fell short of committing to reverse the policy.

Much of his speech was about how he has changed the Labour Party, making it electable again, and against the backdrop of violence in the Middle East he said Labour has rooted out antisemitism and clearly labelled Hamas as terrorists.

Careful not to be a hostage of fortune, Starmer told conference that ‘changing a country is not like ticking a box… long term solutions are not oven ready.’

The Iron Chancellor?

On Monday, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves set out her stall to be the UK’s first female Chancellor, delivering a barnstorming conference speech in which she said Labour would bring in an era of ‘economic security.’

We typically hear about economic responsibility from the platforms of the Conservative Conference, but Labour has clearly decided that this will be a key element of their election campaign and the Shadow Chancellor used her speech to talk about how Labour would achieve growth in office, overhaul planning rules to speed up green energy, battery factories and 5G projects and beef up the number of planners in the public sector.

Reeves also spoke about enhancing employment rights; banning zero-hour contracts and ‘hire and fire’ practices.

Careful not to make undeliverable spending pledges, Reeves told her conference that ‘change will be achieved only on the basis of iron discipline.”

Whilst receiving some criticism from Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing unions, the vision set out by Reeves was broadly welcomed by business groups, who were much more visible at this conference than in previous years.

The Party of Law and Order

In a speech which paraphrased much from the Blair era, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper accused the Conservatives of taking a “wrecking ball to the criminal justice system” claiming that it is her Party which is the “true party of law and order.”

Attacking the number of different Home Secretaries there have been in recent years, Cooper claimed that the Tory Party had presided over a criminal justice system which is broken, saying that some 90% of crimes now go unsolved.

Cooper said that a Labour Government would tackle shoplifting, introduce tougher sentences for violent crime and have a particular focus on knife crime.

Northern Ireland

Observers have repeatedly said that this Labour conference had a different atmosphere around it, as if they had returned to the professional and disciplined era under Tony Blair. One of the key strategists of that time is now back too, Lord Mandelson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary of State.

Whilst the Labour leader did not mention the current stalemate at Stormont during his speech, Mandelson said people who believe Labour will produce a magic wand to fix the Stormont impasse are living in a “fool’s paradise.”

Whilst the DUP stayed away, Michelle O’Neill and Doug Beattie were in Liverpool this week.

In addition to a Sinn Fein fringe event, there was a panel discussion on ‘How Northern Ireland can transform its economy over the next 25 years’, featuring Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn and some local contributors.

The DUP hosts the next party conference when they meet in Belfast. Attendees will be listening out for any signals about whether Sir Jeffrey Donaldson plans to bring his Party back into the power sharing Executive, or any detail on the ongoing discussions with the Government over the addressing DUP concerns about the operation of the Windsor Framework and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK Internal market.