Peter Kenyon reflects on Labour’s 2023 Conference and three by-election triumphs
Wow. Labour’s leadership is quietly cock-a-hoop. Three by-elections – all won with 20% plus swings, sandwiched with this year’s annual conference in Liverpool. Particularly delicious was the pre-conference victory north of the border with a 20.4% swing from the Scottish Nationalist Party in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. Could this herald Labour’s return in Scotland and ease the path to a majority in the Westminster Parliament? In his Leader’s speech on the banks of the Mersey, Keir Starmer cautioned members not to be complacent, saying, “Scotland can lead the way to a Labour Government. But be under no illusions. We must earn every vote. And we must understand that the Scottish people are not just looking at us. They’re also looking at Britain.” The trouble with that language is it risks feeding the illusion that when the votes are counted, winning politicians think they have earned them. Beware. Rarely is that the case.
We have entered a period in which the electorate wants rid of the Conservatives. Full-stop. So it proved in the two by-elections held just a week after the Liverpool Conference closed. Mid-Bedfordshire was won with a 20.5% swing, despite a 23.12% voting for the Lib-Dems, a cautionary tale for tactical voting advisors. Tamworth swung 23.89% to Labour, exceeding the famous result in the same area ahead of the 1997 election when Labour won with a 22% swing. Tony Blair eat your heart out.
All by-election results come with caveats, look at the turnouts – Tories fatuously claim their voters just stayed at home. No, the electorate want change. In 1945, Labour’s policies were ambitious and clear. In 1997 they were clear, if unambitious. For 2024, or January 2025, Starmer set out a vision for the UK in his Conference speech, but it is not clear how it will be achieved. Whatever Labour puts in its Manifesto, it will probably win a landslide to enable it to govern without any more discussion of pacts or coalitions. This is despite its lack of preparedness for government, an issue laid bare in the Guardian newspaper’s ‘curtain-raise’ pre-Conference on 5 October. Their main sources were people in the know, namely the Blair team. Forewarned is forearmed, and with at least a year to go there is plenty of time to draw up a timetable and start drafting the legislation needed to deliver even the vaguest of promises.
Of more concern to many political animals inside and outside the party, is Starmer’s lack of political nous. The latest example is his reaction to the tragic events in Gaza in the wake of Hamas atrocities in Israel on 7 October. His most crass utterance was in an LBC radio interview with Nick Ferrari on 11 October the day after his Conference speech in which he said Israel’s denial of power and water to Gaza was justified. “I’m very clear. Israel does have that right, must have that right, to defend herself, and Hamas bears responsibility,” Starmer said. “A siege is appropriate? Cutting off power, cutting off water, Sir Keir?” asked Ferrari. “I think Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation. Obviously, everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has a right to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility for these terrorist acts.”
For a former human rights lawyer to be at odds with the basic tenets of international law has left many of the party’s faithful livid. His stance has led to Labour councillors and members resigning, and probably encouraged tens of thousands more onto the streets in support of Palestine. Muslim votes are part of Labour’s electoral bedrock. Some estimate as many as 30 Labour seats are at risk in the event of Starmer failing to clear the air. At the time of going to press it is difficult to say how the growing mutiny against Starmer may end. If Labour’s involvement in the Iraq war offers any guidance, there will be impact, but it will not affect the outcome of the next UK general election. For old guard party activists, it is depressing to witness, and all avoidable with wise counsel. But among the young flooding streets to garner support, the push to win will continue. After the results are declared the real work starts – legislating for change. In that regard, Starmer and his team have barely begun.