Labour fancies its chances as Tory woes mount

Less than a month in office, PM Truss has already riled many of her MPs and members with her economic policies



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sun 2 Oct 2022, 9:16 PM

Last updated: Sun 2 Oct 2022, 9:50 PM

It is a less known institution outside Britain, but the annual party conference season has always been a key indicator of which way the political wind blows. It is one of the highlights of the political calendar: over three weeks in September and October, when the House of Commons is in recess, the three main parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats – hold their conferences in towns such as Blackpool, Bournemouth, Liverpool, Bristol, Brighton and Birmingham. Party leaders, lobbyists, donors and members plan in advance for the opportunity to influence policy formulation and direction of the party.

The centrepiece is the party leader’s speech, which is supposed to rally members and enthuse them until the next conference. The leaders prepare for weeks on their speeches, using the services of speech-writers and ideas people, including past leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The conference also provides journalists opportunities to assess the headwinds and for spin doctors to influence the narrative. Not everything always goes to plan, and there is always something that makes headlines. In 2020, most of the party conferences were held online due to the Covid pandemic.

The ruling Conservative party’s conference began in Birmingham yesterday (October 2). It runs until Wednesday, when the new leader (and Prime Minister) Liz Truss will deliver her speech. The Liberal Democrats’ conference scheduled from 17 to 20 September was cancelled due to national mourning over the passing away of Queen Elizabeth. Labour, which has been out of power since 2010, held its conference in Liverpool from 25 to 28 September when, by all accounts, there was positive mood music, the party and leader Keir Starmer buoyed by polls suggesting it is on course to victory at the next election. Starmer, who took over from Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, has faced much criticism from inside and outside the party, but appeared prime ministerial in his speech that concluded with the words: “As in 1945, 1964, 1997, this is a Labour moment”.

The mood at the Conservative conference could not be more different. Less than a month in office, Truss has already riled many of her MPs and members with her economic policies that rocked Britain’s financial system last week, forcing the Bank of England to make a multi-billion pound intervention; the week has been widely described as ‘catastrophic’ for Truss. A new poll on the eve of the conference suggests that as many as 71 per cent of those who backed the Conservatives at the last general election believe that Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng have “lost control” of the economy. The survey by Opinium also reveals that Labour has extended its lead by 14 percentage points in the last week alone, from 5 points to 19 points, and that Truss’ ratings are now lower than Boris Johnson’s at the height of the ‘Partygate’ scandal. To add to her woes, some Tory MPs are already beginning to demand her removal as prime minister.

The divisions opened by the recent leadership contest are yet to heal. The party conference is supposed to showcase the unity of purpose to the people and the opposition, but the Birmingham event is being noted more for the Tory big beasts who are staying away: Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Mel Stride and David Davis. Besides, Rishi Sunak, who scorned the economic policies of Truss during the leadership contest as ‘fantasy’ and ‘fairytale economics’, will also not attend the conference.

The slogan for the conference, printed on its brochure, is ‘Getting Britain Moving’, but it has already prompted a stream of jokes and memes online, as the adverse impact of what is dubbed as ‘Trussonomics’ became clear. The conference will provide Truss another opportunity to explain her controversial policies, but as some Tory MPs have been ruing, there is some deflation, a sense of ‘being spent’ after 12 years in office, and less sense of unity, compared to the unity and confidence evident during Labour’s conference. There is hardly any Tory MP who is certain that Truss can lead the party to victory over Starmer’s Labour in 2024; in Labour ranks, there is quiet jubilation that Truss remaining in office would effectively make it more likely that the party wins.

Whether such Labour hopes materialise in 2024 remain to be seen, but on one front Starmer has succeeded in building bridges. Labour raised hackles in New Delhi and within sections of the British Indian community when a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir was passed during the party’s conference in 2019, urging its then leader Jeremy Corbyn to seek international observers to enter the region and demand the right of self-determination for people of the valley. The resolution was dubbed ‘anti-India’ and cost the party a sizeable chunk of the British Indian vote during the 2019 election. Starmer, after taking over from Corbyn, slowly but surely made conciliatory gestures, highlighting the rise of India’s economy and reiterating the official line that conflicts such as Jammu and Kashmir need to be resolved by India and Pakistan rather than by intervention by any third party.

Starmer’s efforts were evident during the party conference. For the first time after the controversial resolution, India’s deputy high commissioner participated in a fringe event at the Labour conference, signalling a sense of diplomatic closure over the row. There is an affiliated group called the Labour Friends of India, but the party also announced that it has reinvigorated a group called Labour Convention for Indian Organisations (LCIO), headed by MP Navendu Mishra, who recalls the many links between the party and India before and after independence. Seeking to re-build bridges with the British Indian community, Starmer said at the conference: “I'm proud of Labour's work with the Indian diaspora in the UK, particularly in strengthening ties between the UK and India. British Indians make an enormous contribution to our economy, culture, and politics. I'll welcome working with the LCIO on our mission to form the next Labour government”.

As the 2024 election draws near, as of now Labour appears upbeat and the Conservative in retreat. Truss’ speech on Wednesday will be closely watched by many, including the senior party leaders and MPs who have chosen to stay away.

The writer is a senior journalist and researcher based in London.

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