Whether you’re an MP or a researcher, backbencher or frontbench, Labour or Tory; nothing unites Westminster like complaining about conference season. Most will declare themselves pleased at not having to leave their sofa this autumn, but I suspect more than a few politcios will find themselves secretly missing the warm white wine of a fringe event and the late-night gossip in the Midland Hotel bar.
Labour hosted ‘Connected’, its digital conference for the covid age, this week and although the party will be concerned at missing out on one of its primary fundraising opportunities, of greater concern will be if the key moments are noticed by the public at all.
Ordinarily, Parliament will be in recess and each main party gets its own week to be the centre of media attention. But these aren’t ordinary times and Labour has struggled to achieve cut-through against the backdrop of the latest government announcements on covid-related restrictions.
Still, Labour has to make do and this is in many ways an unusual conference anyway as the main objective will be around successfully positioning the new leader and his shadow cabinet as a credible future alternative government.
The Leader’s office has relied on the more experienced figures in the shadow cabinet such as Lisa Nandy, Rachel Reeves and comeback king Ed Miliband to be its outriders in the media but the crucial shadow treasury team has been quieter of late. There has now been a clear attempt to change this with a good cop/bad cop strategy of securing soft focus coverage of shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds’s back story in the pliant Daily Mirror whilst her deputy Bridget Philipson told some hard economic truths in The Sun.
The latter move was especially controversial with marginalised corbynites and Momentum who consider any association with the Murdoch press to be beyond the pale. But the Leader’s office and the shadow treasury team will be pleased to have gained positive coverage in a right-wing paper widely read by traditional Labour voters, taken steps to establish their credentials as being economically responsible, and created even more clear blue water with the old leadership.
As usual, the main event was the Leader’s speech and whilst it was inevitably light on policy, it was strong on values. Starmer successfully positioned himself against his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn by emphasising his commitment to security, and against his opponent Boris Johnson by highlighting his competent lawyerly approach to details, even mentioning his knighthood to emphaise his patriotism. With the speech taking place in the traditional Labour town of Doncaster and in front of a literal red wall, the appeal to the lost voters of 2019 could not have been clearer. But Starmer was also happy to play some of the Labour hits by brandishing his commitment to tackling climate change and properly funding public services.
Starmer dipped his toes into Labour’s past by citing the common denominator of post-war election winners Attlee, Wilson and Blair: their ability to articulate a positive vision for the future. This is certainly something that Starmer will also need to do if he is to succeed but for now, it is enough to set out who he is, who he isn’t and what he stands for.
Labour can feel satisfied to have successfully delivered ‘Connected’ in challenging circumstances. Starmer successfully positioned himself and delivered a well-received speech that will leave most Labour MPs and activists with a spring in their step. But, like almost all conference speeches, this one will soon be forgotten and Labour will be left with a multitude of daunting challenges. How to stay relevant throughout Covid-19, how to avoid no deal Brexit bear traps, how to win back the traditional red wall seats that are essential to any viable electoral strategy, how to win in Scotland and the south-east which are both essential for securing a workable parliamentary majority.
These are existential questions for Labour’s very existence, let alone its future relevance. But they are also questions for another day. Starmer and his team can feel satisfied that this speech has positioned them well to be able to meet these substantial challenges in the future.
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