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Six key questions for Keir Starmer at the Labour Party conference

The IfG expert team pick out six key questions for Labour to answer in Liverpool

Keir Starmer
Can Keir Starmer convince the public that Labour is ready for government?

From levelling up to net zero, and from Brexit to ethics, there are plenty of policy questions to be asked of Labour at its conference – while the mood of the party could reveal just how ready it is for government

1. How much more policy detail will we see?

The 2023 party conferences are being widely seen as the launch pad for the parties’ campaigns for the next general election. For the Labour Party, holding its conference after the Conservative gathering in Manchester last week has both advantages and disadvantages. The newly reshuffled shadow cabinet some of whom have have only a few weeks to learn their new brief  has had only a few days to respond to the policy ideas put forward by Rishi Sunak and his team, even if some of the key ideas had been leaked or pre-briefed. On the other hand, going second is advantageous in enabling Labour to tweak its messaging and critique of the Conservative Party to the governing party’s conference pronouncements.

A key question is how far Keir Starmer and his shadow team will go to flesh out their policy platform. So far Labour has been cautious about providing detailed policy proposals which might attract criticism, but this has laid it open to criticism for the lack of specificity within its five overarching missions. Such caution is not unusual for an opposition party at this point ahead of an election, but the concrete and controversial – policy ideas put forward by Rishi Sunak in his conference speech have laid down a challenge to the official opposition. Labour will not only need to respond to the Conservatives policies but also set out a convincing policy prospectus of its own.

The conference may also provide a chance to brush some barnacles off the Labour policy boat, by dropping or modifying previously announced but now inconvenient commitments. Such shifts are likely to prompt Conservative accusations of flip flopping but maybe nonetheless be wise at this distance from the election to avoid the greater risk of Keir Starmer winning and then being forced to execute a series of u-turns early in his premiership.

2. What will the mood be at – and following –conference?

This is Starmer’s first chance to roll out his newly appointed ‘dream team’ shadow cabinet – the team that are likely to take up those posts in government if Labour win the next general election. For shadow secretaries of state newly in post, like Angela Rayner, this means that the conference in Liverpool is a big opportunity to give a flavour of their priorities for change. However, those that did move posts have only had three weeks to get their heads round their briefs before being subjected to a three-and-a-half-day procession of speeches, fringes and receptions.

The conference is one of the first big external opportunities for the public, industry and other politics-watchers to see what these changes of personnel means for policy. From levelling up to international development, justice, culture, the environment and work and pension, all eyes will be on new announcements. There might be change even in areas that don’t have new shadow ministers – the ‘opportunity’ mission that launched back in the summer was light on detail.

Conference also provides an opportunity for a show of unity around Starmer’s leadership and Labour’s prospects, and readiness, for government. The Labour lead remains strong in the polls and the scale of the swing in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election should help get things off to a good start. Last year’s Labour conference was a solidly calm affair, with no big controversies – in stark contrast to the Liz Truss car crash. This year, Labour again has the chance provide a measured contrast to a Conservative conference that was wracked with infighting and policy controversy.

Mood matters when it comes to conference. It can galvanise the party ahead of a general election at most about a year away. It can help convince the public and industry that Labour is ready to govern. Or it can expose friction and fault-lines.

3. Is ethics reform still a priority for Labour? 

When Angela Rayner was shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, she made reform of the system governing ethics and standards a priority. In a speech at the Institute, Rayner committed to a new, independent Ethics and Integrity Commission which would oversee the rules that apply to ministers (and some senior civil servants) and go further than the government’s own tweaks to the current regime for standards.  

But Rayner was moved to a new brief, shadow levelling up secretary, in the recent Labour reshuffle, and it is not clear whether her successors on the shadow Cabinet Office team will make standards such a priority. The issue was closely associated with Rayner personally – she regularly asked urgent questions in the Commons on the latest misdeeds in government – and, under Sunak, the number of behavioural scandals in government has reduced. What’s more, with Sue Gray, former civil service head of ethics, now installed as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief-of-staff, it may be that the Labour leader and his team are taking a different approach to the issue. On Monday afternoon we’ll be discussing the topic with Dame Nia Griffiths MP and Debbie Abrahams MP in Liverpool, to find out where the party stands now.

4. How will Labour respond on Net Zero?

The prime minister’s apparent attempt to make net zero a dividing line ahead of the next election, and the delays he announced to crucial elements of the government’s strategy, have changed the context for Labour on net zero. The key question is how the party will respond. The conference will be a chance to assess whether Starmer has decided to push back against this shift in rhetoric and take on Conservative assertions on the war on motorists, bins and meat taxes, or try to avoid the debate.

That decision may depend in part on whether the Labour leadership are convinced that attacks on the costs of net zero will be popular or whether they think the row ULEZ, which dominated the Uxbridge by-election, was an isolated issue. So far, despite strong criticism of the prime minister’s speech and continuing to argue for green growth, Labour appears to be hedging on the policies. Although it has committed to reinstating the 2030 EV target and the energy efficiency requirements on private rented accommodation, Labour has not promised to reverse the delay to the phase-out of fossil fuel boilers, with Ed Miliband saying the party would only implement it when it knew working people would be better off.

The other thing to look out for will be how much detail Labour provides on its own plans for delivering net zero, including whether events like the failure of the most recent offshore wind auction have had any impact on their plans for decarbonising the energy sector and how Great British Energy would work. Of particular interest, given the Conservative attack on costs, will be what further details are announced on how the promised investment reaching £28bn per year towards the end of the parliament will be spent, and how Labour would support people during the transition. That could provide a clue to whether, and if so how, Labour are planning to build and maintain consensus on net zero.

5. Will we hear more about 'levelling up'?

Labour has so far set out little detail about how it will approach reducing regional inequalities if it wins the next election, and how its version of ‘levelling up’ will fit alongside Keir Starmer’s five missions, none of which is explicitly about reducing regional inequalities (even though missions on growth and opportunity do have a regional dimension). In particular, Labour has not yet set out its economic strategy, and what its approach will be to, for example, transport infrastructure and other economic investments.

Key to any strategy will be how it approaches further devolution within England, which was a key component of Gordon Brown’s commission on the UK’s future. That report was welcomed by the Labour front bench, but we have not yet heard further detail about how, if at all, Labour’s plans to devolve more powers would differ from the government’s current approach. Will it commit to further empowering existing mayors like Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Tracy Brabin? And what structures will it look to set up in places without existing devolution deals?

Conference will be an important opportunity for Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner (in her new role as shadow levelling up secretary) to lay out their vision for how a Labour government will adapt and build on levelling up.

6. Will Starmer have anything to say about Brexit?

Rishi Sunak used his conference speech to draw a potential dividing line between the Conservatives and Labour over Brexit. He was upbeat on the impacts so far – and talked up the future opportunities.  Labour will say the PM is living in fantasy land – but will they say what they would do differently? Will Keir Starmer – or his new Brexit lead, Nick Thomas Symonds – put more flesh on their ideas for “making Brexit work” and, if they do, how will it land with the massed ranks of EU diplomats who will be watching on in Liverpool? In Manchester it was notable that there was a common contentment with the current deal from both the EU and moderate Conservative Brexit supporters.

But the other interesting issue is how far Starmer’s line of continuing to rule out membership of the Single Market and Customs Union (the only real route to reduce the burdens on business of the Johnson-Frost trade deal) comes under pressure from a membership which is generally much more pro-EU than the leadership is allowing itself to be. Will they take their cue from changing public opinion to try pressure Starmer to be more open to a Norway style deal – or contemplate eventual re-joining?

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