Rather than seeking a punch-up with the left at this week’s Labour conference, Sir Keir Starmer intends to speak directly to voters about his aim to lead the “party of change” at an election which will be fought on cost-of-living issues such as unaffordable houses and spiralling energy prices, a close shadow cabinet ally has told The Independent.
Many expect a clash with the left at the Brighton gathering, after they branded this week’s pamphlet setting out Sir Keir’s vision as a breach of his promise to stick with key elements of the agenda of predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
In a provocative move, Mr Corbyn himself on Friday accused the leadership of “failing to listen” to the Labour movement over calls for a wealth tax and rapid decarbonisation of the economy and warned that the leader has been trying to sideline members and unions and “shut down debate” with plans to give more power to MPs to pick future leaders.
But on the eve of the five-day conference, shadow housing secretary Lucy Powell insisted that the policy platform being developed is “radical” and will allow Labour to go into the election expected in 2023 or 2024 as the party of change after almost 15 years of Tory-led government.
She dismissed as “hackneyed” the idea that Sir Keir must follow the example of Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair in seeking confrontation with his own party to demonstrate he is in charge.
“I don’t really buy into that argument that he has to create some kind of false internal row in order to show strength,” said Ms Powell.
“I don’t think that’s what Keir is about and I don’t think that’s what his intention is.
“What this conference needs to be about and will be about, more than anything, is speaking directly to the country and to voters about the issues that they care about.
“That means the cost-of-living crisis and the housing crisis. It means the huge catch-up in education and mental support and social interaction that our kids need and the massive backlog of pressure that the NHS is under, and that’s before you even get to the climate crisis. I’ve no doubt that will be the main focus of this conference.”
Mr Corbyn will address a number of fringe events in Brighton, sparking fears that he could distract from efforts to show that Labour is under new leadership.
In an eve-of-conference challenge his successor, the former leader said: “Our movement has the answers to the big questions of the age – inequality, the climate crisis and the pandemic – but our leaders are failing to listen and put these solutions front and centre.
“At conference, I hope to hear how Labour will bring in a wealth tax to fund a National Care Service like the NHS, will take the radical action needed to decarbonise by 2030, stand against the drumbeat of a new cold war and will rein in the runaway wealth and power of a tiny elite.
“I know our trade unions and members have developed these policies. But the signs are that the party leadership wants to try to shut down debate, sideline the members and trade unions with the end result that Labour props up rather than challenges our broken political and economic system.”
Despite widespread calls for Sir Keir to offer an olive branch to the left by readmitting Mr Corbyn into the parliamentary party, Ms Powell said she expected a “warm” reception for the leader at his first in-person conference, after last year’s event was forced online by the Covid pandemic.
Annual conference gives the opposition a rare opportunity to command the attention of the media and TV audiences and the leader can be expected to use it to “open up” more to voters about his personality, background and formative experiences and his hopes for the country, she said.
With probably only two conference speeches ahead of him before the general election, many in Westminster expect Sir Keir will want to take the opportunity to shake off perceptions that his approach is over-cautious and his presentation wooden and uninspiring.
Ms Powell said he had been held back by the pandemic in seizing the agenda in the way he would have wanted.
Eighteen months after he won the leadership with a warning that Labour had “a mountain to climb” to regain power, she admitted that the party was still “at base camp” with a mountain ahead.
“We’ve been in a massive national crisis and, quite naturally, the opposition gets squeezed out because people want to hear what the government is doing,” she said.
“This is undoubtedly the biggest moment he has to project the party and himself as a leader and I’ve got no doubt that he’ll seize that opportunity with relish.”
While insisting that the next election remains “winnable” – in part because of the “volatility” of the modern electorate – Ms Powell said Sir Keir was also focused on longer-term change to the party and must not be sidetracked by concerns over its weak current performance in the polls.
“My advice to Keir and to any other leader at any other time is that you can’t slavishly follow the polls,” she said. “You’ve got to pick your strategic direction of travel and move towards it. Sometimes you get a short-term gain, sometimes you get a short-term hit. But the challenge is to keep the eye on the prize of the next election and the one after it and the one after that.
“It is like turning an oil tanker around. You can’t judge it on short-term changes in polls. You’ve got to have that long-term view in order to make the strategic headway and the big-change headway that we need to make.”
She pointed to her own portfolio of housing and levelling up as a key area where Labour can make inroads into Tory support in election battlegrounds ranging from young city dwellers unable to buy a home to traditional Labour voters in the former Red Wall of the Midlands and north who are watching bills spiral out of their reach.
Launching plans earlier this week to force developers to build more affordable homes and give first-time buyers priority on new properties, Ms Powell made the bold claim that Labour is now “the party of home ownership” after a decade of skyrocketing prices, falling property ownership and unaffordable rents under Tories.
The long-standing promise that hard work will be rewarded with the ability to enjoy a secure and affordable home has been shattered by Conservative governments constantly pandering to the needs of speculators and developers over those wanting to buy or rent property, she said.
This can be seen in new figures showing that rents are now £1,800 higher in England – and more than £4,200 in London – since 2011, she said.
And over the same period, the cost of buying a home has shot up nearly 50 per cent, outstripping wage growth by almost three times.
The impact has been hardest on the younger generation with 774,000 fewer home-owing households aged under 45 than there were when Labour left office.
Ms Powell – who will develop her proposals further in a keynote speech in Brighton on Sunday – said she was “relishing” the chance to take on Michael Gove on the issue at the despatch box, after prime minister Boris Johnson moved his cabinet consigliere to a new Department for Levelling Up.
The PM’s decision to put regeneration and housing at the centre of his policy agenda in the coming years could backfire on Tories, she suggested.
“I don’t think ‘levelling up’ means very much to the voters and I don’t think it means very much in reality,” she said. “Housing is a key part of levelling up. It sits well in the middle of those strategic issues that the rebalancing of our country should be about, including transport infrastructure, skills and access to good decent jobs.
“I’m sceptical about the government’s real appetite to take on some of these issues, because what we’ve seen over the last 10 years is they constantly come down on the side of a rigged market which puts all the power in the hands of developers and landowners and away from communities.
“Unless you’re prepared to come forward with policies like those we are setting out this week, which are actually very radical, but sensible and necessary, then you’re not going to deliver on that so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda, because you’re not prepared to do what’s necessary.
“As a proud northerner and Mancunian, I’m more than happy to take on Michael Gove on tackling the root causes of regional inequality in this country and that deep-seated inequality that affects parts of the north.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies