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This is Starmer’s big chance to connect with voters. He must not squander it

In Liverpool, Labour needs to gather the kind of momentum that will bury the Tories for a generation

Sir Keir Starmer heads to this year’s Labour conference in Liverpool with the party polling 21 points ahead of the Tories. Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty

Next week in Liverpool, the Labour left will set the agenda. Jeremy Corbyn will wow the crowds, backed by the deselected Tyneside mayor Jamie Driscoll. There will be a strategy session on abolishing the police, a debate on the climate insurrection led by Just Stop Oil and Zarah Sultana MP will do a pub quiz.

After that, Labour’s conference will begin. And the energy of the strikes and protests, which once flowed from the fringe events into the passageways of Labour conference, will be crowded out by an even greater excitement: that of a centrist social democracy on the brink of power.

Keir Starmer heads to Liverpool with his party polling at 45%, 21 points ahead of the Tories and rising, according to YouGov – and that’s with a Green score of 7% sitting ready to be squeezed come election time. The conference fringe, once bereft of corporate PR, will be thronged by chief execs and foreign diplomats, taking a last chance to influence the party that could be in power for a decade.

But I’ll approach Liverpool with trepidation. Because the exam question has changed. In the 12 months since Liz Truss trashed Britain’s fiscal stability it has been enough for Labour to trade on that legacy of incompetence, the divisions and missteps of the Sunak administration, and its total inability to deliver its own meagre programme.

Sunak’s U-turn on decarbonisation targets, his scrapping of the northern leg of HS2, and his new crusade for the rights of motorists against speed bumps and bus lanes mark the start of a desperate swerve to the populist right. Suella Braverman’s trip to Washington, to deliver a venom-laden attack on gay refugees to an audience of white, male Republicans, is another signal of the new Tory strategy.

Sunak intends, just as Johnson did, to campaign against the record of the last Tory government. Indeed, by implication, he has repudiated the first 12 months of his own premiership, when ministers were happy to defend net zero targets and infrastructure investment.

I am certain that the Autumn Statement will promise tax cuts beginning just as soon as the Tories are re-elected, with commensurate spending plans designed to tie the hands of Labour both as an incoming government and in its election promises.

Sunak’s strategy should be easy to counter. Slandering refugees does not make rents cheaper. The 41% rise in car insurance premiums is not mitigated by attacks on drag queen story hour. But I remain apprehensive.

Because I have been here before. In 2019, at The World Transformed, the left wing fringe event that precedes Labour conference, I not only saw the Corbyn leadership walk blindly towards its doom, but large parts of its support base engaged in the same self-delusion.

Here, too, the exam question had changed. Boris Johnson was in command of the Tories and, even as centrist commentators tut-tutted about the closure of parliament, he was mobilising the forces that would give him an 80-seat majority. Yet the police abolition workshops continued and Corbyn’s strategy did not change; even behind the scenes there was a reluctance to ask the obvious question: how do we counter Johnsonism?

I don’t fear a literal repetition of Corbynism’s mistake. But there is a potential 2023 equivalent, and as someone who campaigned to put Keir Starmer into the leadership, I have a clear idea of what it is: a failure to understand the political power of emotion, value and belief.

The last six months of Labour policy have been marked by pragmatic abandonment of policy pledges: £28bn a year to be spent on green energy? Delayed. Scrapping charitable status for private schools? Gone. ULEZ in London? Suddenly a matter of each candidate’s personal preference.

It all makes sense, especially as the election looms and you have to start talking about fiscal decisions to be taken just one year in the future, not three. But Sunak has banked everything on an appeal to selfishness and division. The car driver versus the choking schoolchild; the oil executive versus the solar energy startup; white monocultural nostalgia versus gay refugees.

On their own, Sunak’s policy gambits do not add up to a strategy to turn things round. But their cumulative message: that the Tories want to mobilise a set of deeply held beliefs on behalf of the little guy in suburbia who will be trampled once the country is run by “woke” MPs? With Sky News, GB News and two-thirds of Fleet Street behind him, I would not discount a narrowing in the polls. So what I want from Labour conference is “show, don’t tell”. Messages of hope only resonate if they are as concrete as the messages of division and despair coming from the government.

An election is not just an opportunity to vote a government out: it is an opportunity to mobilise and enthuse that section of civil society that wants change. They are a chance to reach the kind of person we inevitably meet 20 minutes before the ballot boxes close, who forgot it was happening, doesn’t know if they are registered to vote and doesn’t know if it will make a difference.

Starmer’s mandate for change won’t just be measured by the voting results. It will be measured by the enthusiasm he can generate, and the activism he can mobilise, above all among the 18-24 cohort where Labour’s support is running at a breathtaking 68%.

Fail that generation and there will be no second chance. So Labour in Liverpool needs to generate the kind of momentum that can win big, bury the Tories for a generation and carry it into office with the confidence to enact a 100-day programme of tangible change.

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