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13 Oct 2023

Politics and Society

Glen O’Hara reflects on Labour Party conference, suggesting that praise for its organisation and tone may be obscuring the huge challenges ahead.

The emerging consensus seems to be that Labour has won the war of the conference season – a critical moment in any political year, when parties get the chance to speak to the voters directly and place their views higher up the news agenda, and particularly so in the year before a likely general election in 2024.

Labour presented itself as serious, professional and united. Further gains for the leadership in conference votes for party committees confirmed the end of the Corbynite challenge. The commentariat seemed happy with Keir Starmer’s speech and demeanour, and he was praised for shrugging off a glitter-wielding protester and trying to emotionally connect with his audience.

In truth, though, the media herd is gravitating towards next year’s likely victor. A halo begins to descend around any probable new government, as power begins to drain away from the current one. Officials begin thinking about what the next government will say about each project and plan, rather than the views of their present bosses. The fate of big infrastructure programmes now probably depends on future Labour ministers: hence their positive noises about, but refusal to commit to, the High Speed 2 rail line north of Birmingham.

For all the comforting managerialism and reassurance, though, a lingering sense remained that the scale of the challenge was still not quite evident. Given that the new normal seems to be disruption and doubt, and that relatively slow economic growth will be with us at least in the short- to medium-term, can warm words on early years childcare or the NHS be taken seriously when Labour is committed to such small tax rises – on non-doms and private school fees?

The party’s broad direction of travel has been marked out: Britain has to invest and build more than currently planned if it’s going to succeed. Some of the tough choices involved in that push (for instance more housebuilding) are also clear. But how are those ambitions actually to be realised?

Much of this is inevitable, and simply replicates the normal turn of the political seasons. Government is always harder than it looks. Clement Attlee’s peacetime answer to industrial decrepitude was nationalisation, which did indeed deliver massive productivity increases via re-organisation and mechanisation. But those gains took a long time to become apparent, and Labour struggled in the meantime with what the new state-owned industries should look like. Nationalisation came to be seen as muddled, and grew unpopular; it was no New Jerusalem.

Harold Wilson’s panacea was scientific economic planning, but that again proved much more difficult to run than promise. Employers and workers alike struggled or refused to restrain prices and incomes. Simply declaring that Britain might look like this or that in a few years, a ‘growth trick’ that depended on political momentum as much as governing capacity, proved a tightrope walk too far even for Wilson.

New Labour’s promise was slightly vaguer, though no less ambitious – better education (backed up by linking schools up to the Internet) and partnerships between the public and private sectors to stand up to the challenge of globalisation. There is no doubt that public services improved, though massive increases in funding likely played a far greater role than rhetoric and reorganisation. But public-private partnerships often proved expensive, bureaucratic, rigid and friendless.

The agenda of investment, production, onshoring and more certainty all round may be an attractive offer at this time of increasing economic and geostrategic uncertainty. But it will face unenviable barriers to success, particularly if Labour is unable to gain an overall majority.

It bears repeating, again and again, that Labour needs to win 124 seats over and above its 2019 performance just to gain an absolute majority of one. It can be done – in 1997, Blair added 146 seats to Labour’s tally – but it is a daunting, indeed historic task that Labour has only ever achieved once since the Second World War.

If Starmer can’t quite get over the line, will the Liberal Democrats help him out with his housing targets? It seems unlikely, especially if they win many suburban seats full of existing homeowners at the next election. Although the Scottish National Party can’t be seen to bring down a Labour government, will they assist a Starmer government with day-to-day business? Given their interest in seeing Labour fail, it seems more than an open question.

All the while, a gathering rightwards turn in the Conservative camp may mean Labour is faced with a populist opposition – with Labour challenged on very high net immigration numbers, for example, despite the Conservatives having presided over similar figures themselves.

The Conservative Party has reinvented itself so many times that it will eventually settle on a guise that fits the path back to power most snugly. Even Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss couldn’t break them entirely: Starmer and the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, will face a re-energised right soon enough.

Labour is benefiting from a general mood for ‘change’, which is one reason why the Prime Minister was foolish to try to pose as a disruptive radical (just as Labour hurt itself by criticising New Labour after 2010). If you want change, why not vote for the real thing?

That mood for renewal comes around only rarely in Britain – in 1945, 1964 and 1997 – but it’s clearly in the air now. The party is, for once, pushing with and not against the grain. But once that stops being the case, the really hard work will begin.

By Glen O’Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Oxford Brookes University.

Glen O’Hara is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017), and is currently working on a history of the domestic policies of the Blair government.


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