Thinking back to the humiliation of the 2019 defeat, no Labour leader could have imagined being in a better place as they arrived in Liverpool for the annual party conference on Saturday.
The Conservative Party left Manchester last Wednesday looking very much like a party that had run out of ideas and stamina. Labour was ahead in the polls and confidence must have been boosted by the by-election win in Scotland last Thursday when Labour doubled the number of Scottish seats it holds from one to two. But there was no sense of self-satisfaction from Starmer or his team. I don’t think they are playing it cool out of false modesty, rather I think it is knowing that the task ahead is formidable. The electoral maths is particularly challenging; to win one seat the party needs to secure a 12% swing. And it needs to win many more than one seat.
By my reckoning, the next general election will be in May 2024; Starmer has just seven months to persuade the electorate that they should vote for him. His first task is to convince them that they can trust him with the security of this country and with the economy – basic requirements of any government and something that the electorate didn’t believe of Jeremy Corbyn. Then he needs to demonstrate that he understands them. I don’t think people are looking for him to paint a picture of a bucolic Britain with the sun shining and everyone living in luxury. No one will buy it.
Instead, he needs to give them realistic hope. It doesn’t sound very ambitious, but when 70% of people believe Britain is broken and 15 million working people have a buffer of less than £100 in their bank accounts, most people just want to know they can pay the bills, they can see the doctor when they need to, that their children can get into the nearest school and it is good and not about to fall down, that their neighbourhood is safe, and that they can have the occasional family day out or even a holiday once a year. Starmer needs to reassure voters that he can deliver on these modest aspirations and how he is going to do it.
I know that a lot of this work has been and is being done by Labour behind the scenes. They have been hard at work developing thinking which will address these basic needs and indeed still more. Furthermore, they have been doing it in partnership with businesses and experts who can bring them the skills and experience to help them turn ideas into deliverable policies.
But Labour hasn’t done enough to tell voters about this work – until now.
I think in his conference speech Starmer did exactly that. He spoke directly to the British electorate and told them about the changes he wants to make to make their lives better. It was a well-constructed narrative; as a communications professional, I take my hat off to his speechwriters. It had all the hallmarks of good rhetoric: well-structured, repeated themes, well-paced, humour, self-deprecation, almost lyrical in parts. And respect for the audience – he was clear if Labour wins office, it will take hard work, a “decade of national renewal” after 13 years of Conservative Government in which “nothing got better”. But he talked in real, human terms about what that hard work would deliver – more than 1.5 million new homes, a new wave of New Towns, cutting NHS waiting lists, NHS reform with an emphasis on keeping people well and out of hospital, scrapping zero hour contracts, more police, and a clear commitment to Net Zero and the opportunities that would bring. The speech was full of policies and commitments aimed to please “working people” and businesses alike.
He was careful in his attack on the Conservatives; it was not about their values, but the Government’s behaviour and he made a direct appeal to Conservative voters who feel let down by Partygate and Covid contracts to support Labour.
He acknowledged the achievements of previous Labour governments and used his dismissal of the protestor who managed to get on stage and shower him with glitter at the start of his speech as an illustration of why he had to change the party – that his Labour Party is not one of protest, but it is absolutely seeking power. This brought warm applause from not just the main hall but the overspill hall in which I was sitting, which was itself packed to the rafters. They cheered and clapped and rose to their feet repeatedly. Shedding his jacket after the protest, sleeves rolled up, this man looked like the heir to Blair. And the delegates around me were loving it.
The task for him and his party is now to use the next seven months to repeat this narrative, up and down the country, on the airwaves and in print, on social media, and on the doorstep. Every voter needs to understand what he means by Mission Government and how things can only get better under him. If he can do that then 2024 will be his 1997 and not another 1992.