In all this chaos, Labour’s chance is now, at this conference. And we are still perfectly capable of making a pig’s ear of it

by Rob Marchant

As every political journalist will tell you, this by-election or this conference is always the decisive one, the one which changes everything. Of course, it is a journalist’s job to make a story more interesting and engaging than it actually is. But in this case, that argument might just have a point.

Labour, under a leader nearly two-and-a-half years into the job, is in a decent place. Largely thanks to Boris Johnson’s long-overdue implosion and his replacement by a less-than-inspiring alternative PM, Labour is riding high in the polls. In normal times, he would be looking like a shoo-in for an election in two years’ time.

But these are not normal times, if anything has been remotely normal in Britain these last few years.

After Brexit, Covid and now a worsening economic crisis, we end up in the bizarre position of having changed both prime minister and head of state in the same week. The normally phlegmatic British public is now in an emotional place, with some perhaps even subconsciously reassessing this country, its place in the world, and what kind of a place we would like it to be.

In the midst of all this confusion, like an object randomly falling from the air, plops the 2022 conference season. No doubt, Liz Truss will be aiming to come out of it looking like a powerful, well-supported primus inter pares of an A-list team. This will be a challenge: as the Conservatives’ fourth leader during the last six years, the look is more like the dismal fag-end of a long period of one-party government. But it is up to Labour to make it so.

Turning to Starmer, we can see a creditable progress which has been made since the Corbyn nadir. The sixty-four million dollar question is, though, has Labour changed enough to be ready for government?

We might first look at history: last time Labour was out of power, it took twelve years to reinvent itself from its turning point, which we could reasonably claim to be Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech. Starmer has had just over two. So, if he has really managed the necessary turnaround, he has done it in double-quick time. Or rather, six times as quickly.

The evidence he has succeeded is less clear. We are getting rid of at least some of the terrible Corbyn-era MPs, yes. And the party is starting to unveil some policy meat. That said, neither is it difficult to appeal to the mass of voters on policy grounds. For example, when the competition has just agreed to removing bonus caps for already-wealthy City types, in a time when average families are struggling to pay energy bills and keep up with rampant inflation.

More worryingly, we still have members on the NEC who believe antisemitism was exaggerated (and, in fact, whose Corbyn-manufactured Jewish ginger group, “Jewish Voice For Labour”, is still being permitted to give antisemitism trainings in local parties).

We have unions, and backbenchers supporting them, who think that in the midst of all the economic strife that strike action should be unconditionally supported, like it would have been in the Labour of the 1970s.

And we have a party which had its last conference – its first under a “mainstream” leader in seven years – almost derailed by the inability of various Cabinet members to state what a woman was.

Well, we now have a prime minister – a woman prime minister – who can, and without any mealy-mouthed qualifications. And a gleeful press who will almost certainly raise this issue again during conference week, after the fun they had with poking Labour with that particular stick last time. Woe betide Labour if it has not got a defensible position together on this during the intervening twelve months.

Labour needs to be firm in its resolve. It needs to be disciplined. It. And it needs, above all, not to say crazy things which land badly with the public.

Now Starmer has, to his great credit, made it clear from the off he takes his new opponent very seriously. And he should.

Not because Truss is anything more than a remarkably mediocre leader for a party with a long – and, painful though it may be for us to admit it – successful history.

But because, viewed dispassionately, the Tories’ net weakness is still close to being matched by the sheer unreadiness of his own party for government. As a result, things are likely to be close, come 2024. Right now, one does not remotely have the “government-in-waiting” sensation of, say, Labour in 1995; rather, we still bear the undisciplined look of the Kinnock era.

To put it bluntly: Labour urgently needs to come out of the next couple of weeks looking like a party of government. That, or it is unlikely to become one any time soon.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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