Boosted by a 20%-swing breakthrough victory over the nationalists in Scotland at Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and a chaotic week for the Conservatives in Manchester, Labour delegates took their seats on 8 October at the Labour Party Annual Conference 2023 in Liverpool. The hope is that this will be the last Conference before the general election and a Labour government. The chosen theme was ‘Let’s get Britain’s future back’.
Deputy Leader Angela Rayner caught the upbeat mood with a combative opening speech highlighting Labour’s latest policy on the NHS and housing, as well as the ‘New Deal for Working People’ that she and her team are working on. She plans to introduce the bill in Parliament herself as deputy prime minister, repealing anti-union legislation, ending zero hours and fire and rehire contracts, increasing statutory sick pay extended to the self-employed, and rolling out sectoral collective bargaining across the economy.
Keir Starmer was on the platform with warm congratulations as Angela left the podium, emphasising their strong partnership at the head of the party. Then it was a morning of party reports on sound finances and building membership. They all passed with large majorities. The morning culminated in the public launch of the basis of Labour’s manifesto, the National Policy Forum Final Report. LabourList has helpfully condensed its 116 pages to bullet points.
Monday afternoon included a panel discussion led by Campaigns Manager Pat McFadden, on the electoral challenge ahead. Dr Michael Hardacre, the Mayor of Wolverhampton, predicted that the Conservative campaign would be one of deflection, distortion and division.
As horrific events in the Middle East began to dominate news reports, the conference kept focus on the future but held a minute’s silence for the victims with David Lammy and Starmer declaring their support for Israel and Ukraine. One highlight of my Conference was Shadow Foreign Secretary Lammy’s insistence that the UK is part of Europe: “European nations are among our closest allies”. While Starmer studiously avoided any mention of Europe or electoral reform in his speech on Tuesday, he did make some sensible statements on the UK’s relations with the EU in Canada a few weeks earlier.
Winning the general election – the ‘five missions’
Starmer repeatedly referred to the ‘five missions’ in his speech (economic growth, clean energy, NHS, safe streets and opportunity for all) which he announced in February 2023. The debates held from Monday to Wednesday were billed as ‘mission plenaries’. They included keynote speeches from shadow ministers, as well as 13 composite motions, compiled from the 12 topics voted for by delegates in the Priorities Ballot covering motions submitted by Constituency Labour Parties and Trade Union branches.
The leadership only opposed Composite 3, on critical infrastructure, because it called for the delivery of infrastructure projects including HS2 in full in its original scope, and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Labour fears the Conservatives will sell off the necessary land before the election. A report on the BBC’s website seems to confirm that this is being considered.
Several Trade Union leaders spoke impressively in the Mission Plenary on Growth for higher living standards, which was followed by the Shadow Chancellor’s excellent speech. Rachel Reeves’ slogan of choice was ‘Ready to rebuild Britain’.
While not on the agenda this year, proportional representation (PR), the elephant in the room, made its mark in my two other Conference highlights. First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said: “We’re creating a Senedd fit for the future, fully elected by proportional representation, where every vote will count.” Labour 4PR held two fringe meetings which they opened up to members at home on Zoom, with Andy Burnham the star attraction.
Highlight three was the protestor who sprinkled Starmer with glitter and shouted: “Politics needs an update.” He was from a small group called People’s House, calling for proportional representation and citizens assemblies. He later apologised for grabbing Starmer’s arm while Labour turned the incident to its advantage, the Conference Chair joking that “the glitterati have arrived”, as Starmer took his seat on the platform next morning. Spotting an opportunity, the publicity team created a ‘Sparkle with Starmer T-shirt’ that quickly sold out. Meanwhile – sprinkled with stardust as he started his speech – Starmer stormed it, as even Tim Stanley of the Daily Telegraph admitted.
Spirit of ‘45
A Labour government is likely to inherit a wasteland, but several speakers at the conference reminded them the party had faced such challenges before, recalling what the Attlee Government achieved after World War II and how the governments of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair had turned things around after years of decline. Starmer promised a decade of renewal and answered the question, ‘Why Labour?’ by promising growth through housebuilding, new towns, safe streets, a Great British Energy company to support the transition to Net Zero, an NHS back on its feet and a government that serves the people.
The leaving of Liverpool sent Labour Party members home on a high note, looking forward to fighting the general election with sound policies and inspiring leaders, facing an opponent in serious disarray. Even an unhelpful tweet from Jeremy Corbyn could not undermine the positive mood, which activists will carry forward to the first of many national campaign weekends on 21 October.