‘After all the changes we’ve made, all the hard work we’ve put in, finally we are seeing the results we want. Yes, conference we can say it at last: Arsenal are top of the League’. Keir Starmer’s opening gambit was met with some nervous laughter and even a few cheers. The former, I think, was more revealing.
Remember the glory days? When Arsène Wenger unleashed his Invincibles on an unsuspecting Premier League? Those were the days when ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ meant something. It meant game over. The only issue was how much Arsenal would win by.
And then? Then came the seemingly endless years of decline. Of comedy defending. Of matches where ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ simply heralded ‘three-one to the opposition’.
Similarly, for Labour, Tony Blair’s Invincibles are long gone. And subsequent iterations have seemed adept only at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (2015) or scoring ever more remarkable own goals (2015-2020).
And while Starmer’s Labour now appears – like Arteta’s Arsenal – to finally be turning a corner, a whiff of late-period Wenger continues to haunt the party.
Above all, the self-doubt is hard to shake. Despite the 17-point poll lead, the prevailing mood in Liverpool was strikingly cautious. Labour Party conference in 1995 or 1996 this was not. Yes, there were noticeably more corporate types about – both in the exhibition hall, and more generally. Yes, there were countless standing ovations and – as important if not more so – no hecklers.
But behind it all was a distinct sense of ‘we must not blow this’. It was eerily reminiscent of that time at the Emirates when my (Arsenal supporting) son responded to them going 2-0 up before half time by declaring ‘we’ll chuck this away’ (they didn’t).
Does this matter? Yes and no. No in the sense that if your opponents are genuinely intent on self-destruction and, even if not, they’re hamstrung by problems beyond their control – global inflationary pressures, for instance – it’s actually quite hard to lose.
Yes, however, in at least two ways. First, in that nerves can be debilitating. Arsenal’s back four have displayed that often enough in the last 18 years or so. Part of the trick about winning is to expect that you’re going to do so. That doesn’t mean being complacent, but it does imply confidence.
Despite the oft-repeated mantra that Starmer is ‘our next Prime Minister,’ it was clear – to me at least – that a lot of people were saying it more in hope than in expectation. At a certain moment, Labour needs to start acting and sounding like a government in waiting.
The Party have done a great job – not without some assistance – in painting the Conservatives as unfit to hold office. What they have been less good at is building a convincing narrative as to why the electorate should choose them instead.
The leader’s speech was a case in point. Coruscating in its critique of Tory economic mismanagement and holding out the hope of something better, there was still no compelling story as why we should the trust the party to get us from here to there.
This nervousness could also afflict a Labour government should they succeed in winning power. I’m old enough to remember the timidity of Tony Blair in his first term, the almost shame-faced social democracy of a New Labour government that achieved an awful lot in practical terms but seemed embarrassed about trying to have the argument over fairness and redistribution. Starmer’s economic inheritance will mean this is a reflex he will not be able to afford.
There is of course still time. We may not have an election for another two years. And starting the closing stages of the electoral race so far ahead in the polls is hardly something to be sniffed at. The key test will be whether, when the party faithful gather in Liverpool next year, Starmer will stand up in front of an audience expecting him to do well, rather than just willing him to. After all, Arsenal may – may – win the League this year. Not that I’d bet on it.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director, UK in a Changing Europe.