By Colm Howard-Lloyd, Director of Public Affairs
As the wind blew me down Brighton’s beach towards the conference centre, I really didn’t know what to expect from the first party conference since the pandemic. Would it be busy? Are the Labour Party ready for government? Do they recognise the role of local government?
The conference was quiet and security was quite light. Whether that is a reflection of a post-pandemic world where we are only slowly returning to meeting face-to-face remains to be seen. The general mood was positive, and despite what the media would have you believe, I saw little evidence of in-fighting and factionalism.
What was lacking though was evidence that Labour is taking the time in opposition to fix themselves and be ready for an election. There were many fringe events on the problems the UK, and the world face, but very few on winning elections. If there is an election coming soon, they are not showing outward signs of being ready for the fight.
Hushed late-night conversations with Councillors, MPs and Shadow Ministers didn’t give me much of a sense of overall vision, and few policies ready to put to the electorate. But the conference did yield some good green shoots.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves committed an extra £28bn a year on making the UK economy more “green” and would spend the additional funding on offshore wind farms, planting trees and developing batteries.
She also pledged, if elected, to freeze business rates in England until 2023, with an eventual plan to scrap business rates and replace them with a system that does not disadvantage local authorities.
Both of these would be funded by an increase in the Digital Services Tax and were welcomed by both the FSB and CBI.
In his Leader’s speech Sir Kier Starmer again seemed to lack a strategy to win, but keenly demonstrated that he is a leader that can take his party forward. If rumours of a 2022 election are correct, that may be a wise tactic – there is little to gain from revealing your manifesto early if an election is on the horizon.
The speech was long but Sir Keir was placing himself as a serious politician in comparison to “showman” Boris Johnson, with a speech that firmly moved Labour away from the hard left. It was a return to focusing on mainstream issues – such as health and education – the priorities of voters that he had met on his UK tour over the summer.
Overall it was a positive and well-received conference for Labour. But, they have significant work to do if they are going to be a serious contender in an election that, depending on what happens at next week’s Conservative Conference in Manchester, may be sooner than we expected.