It’s a week on, so what did we learn at Labour’s conference? From a policy perspective, not a lot. Of course there were a swathe of press releases and speeches but these were largely re-announcements of the policies already published as part of Labour’s Five Missions (you can read our series on those here). Instead, what Labour’s conference provided was a reminder of just how much the party has changed under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer and a singular focus on setting out the party’s vision.
There was little of the infighting that has plagued previous conferences. Speakers kept to their talking points. This was a professional party conference (with the exception of a huge security lapse when a protestor showered the Labour leader with glitter). Nothing encapsulated this change better than the conference hall giving a standing ovation to Sir Keir’s comments regarding the atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel.
Fundamentally, this was a conference about language and imagery not policy. In this it succeeded. There is no need to set out policy specifics so far from an election. To do so only leads to the other side (or the media) picking holes.
Contrast Labour’s big announcement on house building with Rishi Sunak’s announcement on HS2. We’re pretty sure that the only concrete pledge Labour made was to build 300,000 new homes a year. When it comes to how that is done there was lots of talk of planning reform but few specifics. The Conservatives meanwhile canceled HS2 and set out a whole range of new projects that would be funded with the money. The problem with adding this extra detail was that plenty of those projects have been completed, plenty were impossible, and plenty had worse value for money calculations than HS2.
By sticking to the top line rather than getting bogged down in detail, Labour managed to use the conference to introduce more people to their five missions. There are few moments in the political calendar when you get to set out your vision for the country. Labour’s is to be a mission led government. They may have introduced the concept earlier this year but they needed to repeat it and they will keep repeating it and then maybe, one day, voters will remember some of it when they are in a polling station.
There were a few other areas where Labour tried to get voters' attention over the course of the conference and it’s our bet that you’ll be hearing plenty more about these over the coming months. It’s no good having missions if they’re not accompanied by a bit of retail politics. You need to make a pitch to the electorate. You need to pick a few fights with the opposition. And you need to address some of the issues that might stop the public voting for you.
We got some smart choices from Labour when it came to where they focussed. Everyone is scared of their children failing in later life and parents struggle with maths homework (admit it) so Labour promised maths lessons will be based on “real world” applications. The British public are more concerned about crime than anything so we got a lot of speeches, more police officers and a “tough love” approach to youth crime. Britain’s overflowing sewers reflect a feeling that everything in Britain is broken whilst water company profits speak to a wider sense of corporate unfairness so Labour announced a ban on bonuses for water chiefs.
There was also some bravery. Labour may not have provided any detailed policy solutions to the housing crisis other than a pledge to build 300,000 new homes but with some punchy talking points they’ve successfully picked a fight with NIMBY voting Conservatives. It seems that someone in Labour HQ has finally realised that one of the best ways for any party to get homes built is to build them in constituencies that are never going to vote for you.
Similarly, Labour aren’t backing down on their clean energy plans. Net Zero remains hugely popular with the electorate. The only issue is the electorate don’t want to pay for any of it. By framing the transition as job creating, Labour still think there’s a route to win the argument and portray the Conservatives as the enemy of the environment.
Finally, Labour addressed our national religion. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting was clear that although NHS workers may be heroes, “pouring ever-increasing amounts of money into a system that isn’t working is wasteful in every sense.” In our view, a Labour which is talking about reforming the NHS and which admits there isn’t enough money is a party trying to show it’s ready to lead the country.
Labour should be happy. They got some decent press. They kept control. They set out their mission to more people. And judging by the amount of businesses in attendance, the party’s election war chest is probably a little heavier too. You won’t have been to this year’s conference and come away too much clearer on how Labour will govern, but you will have a better sense of how they’re going to campaign.