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Posted: 27.09.22

Missive from Merseyside

As ever LCA is out and about this Party Conference season. Aside from supporting Opportunity London and the Central District Alliance, our team is also travelling to both Liverpool and Birmingham to take a sounding of the prevailing political currents. Senior Advisor Paddy Hennessy reports on an eventful few days at this year’s Labour Conference in Liverpool.

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On the Monday morning, delegates awoke to news of the plummeting pound touching an all-time low against the dollar. By Tuesday evening, the International Monetary Fund made a pretty brutal and unprecedented intervention, directly criticising the British government’s fiscal plans. 

In decades long past, similar nightmares were suffered by Labour Governments. In 2022, however, it is the Conservatives’ tax-cutting shock tactics, unleashed in Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini-Budget’ just five short days ago, that provided the perfect backdrop for Keir Starmer’s efforts to present himself as Britain’s next prime minister. 

How different it all was to last year’s conference. Then, in Brighton, with Labour at a low ebb, you could barely move without shadow ministers and political aides signing Starmer’s political death warrant and openly speculating on who would replace him. 

This year, they wandered around dazed by opinion polls putting Labour at (variously) 12, 13 and even 17 points ahead, a lead not seen for some 20 years. 

This feeling of confidence boosted the Labour leader too. ‘He literally does believe – probably for the first time – we’re really going to win,’ a shadow cabinet source told me. And that was a couple of weeks ago. 

The leader’s keynote speech – restored to its traditional Tuesday afternoon slot – was clearly less of a make-or-break event than usual given the government’s travails. Starmer is no great orator and on Tuesday there was no vivid memorable slogan to rival Tony Blair’s ‘Labour’s coming home’ in 1996.

But it was easy to envision Starmer as a potential PM, as even Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph acknowledged. And how the make-up of the conference has changed too. In 2018, the last time Labour was in Liverpool, delegates summed up the Jeremy Corbyn era by waving a sea of Palestine flags. This year they burst into a standing ovation as their leader declared ‘country first, party second’ in front of a giant Union Jack backdrop. 

London’s mayor also had a spring in his step, attending Sunday night’s Opportunity London dinner at the Malmaison hotel. He met with Borough leaders, MPs and some of the capital’s most influential business figures (and had some kind words for co-hosts LCA and Mishcon de Reya) to discuss how the Opportunity London campaign can help promote long-term, sustainable investment into London’s Boroughs and communities. Sadiq Khan is always in his element in the political crucible of his party’s conference and this year saw him popping up all over town at various fringe events. 

Khan declared in Liverpool that it is ‘very much my intention to run and win’ a third term as mayor.’ After six bruising years battling three successive Conservative prime ministers for cash (and pretty much everything else), Khan is understood to be attracted by the prospect of working with a fellow party member (and political ally) in No10. 

How likely, then, is it that 2024 will be the first year since 2008 that the capital has a Labour mayor and the country a Labour prime minister? Some observers are still sceptical - pointing to the chimera of Ed Miliband’s double-figure poll leads which evaporated into a Tory majority in 2015.

Beyond Labour’s buoyant mood, in Liverpool’s restaurants and bars, delegates, journalists and political aides aged 30 to 40-something fretted - some possibly for the first time - over their mortgages as the latest dire economic news  swept in. ‘There’s a 1992 feeling about this,’ one veteran political observer declared over a Pizza Express thin-crust special. ‘If you are the government that manages to screw up the currency and screw up the housing market at the same time, you are pretty much screwed yourself.’ Of course there is still time for the Conservatives to recover - but the atmosphere next week when the party gathers in Birmingham is widely expected to be toxic. 

The traditional last-night hot-ticket event, the Daily Mirror party, was in full swing in the Revolución De Cuba bar as Tuesday night segued into Wednesday. Wes Streeting, the Ilford North MP, was accused by some on his side of plotting to take the Labour leader’s place. This year he led the karaoke, offering a twist to the lyrics as he belted out Robbie Williams’s Angels. ‘I’m loving Starmer instead,’ he sang.

There was a lot of love for Starmer this week as the Labour tribe dared to believe that their time might, at last, be coming. But all of this is still some way off. And the chill economic winds mean that, whoever wins the next election, governing will be anything but a breeze.