Hard Labour: inside the party’s no-punches-pulled conference

After the flailing, failing Tories’ poison-dripping party conference, Keir Starmer’s mob descended on Merseyside, pumped and primed for power.

Whenever I used to think of what Keir Starmers voice sounded like, one bit of audio sprang to mind. It was from that strange post-Covid hinterland of July 2021, when I accidentally tapped on a clip of the Leader of the Opposition being routed from a pub in Bath by an anti-lockdown landlord”.

For the first time I fully heard that weedy warble as this knight of the realm tried mightily to take his embarrassment in good grace – something he was doing a lot of at that point, having lost the Hartlepool by-election one month prior. He sounded like a joke, looked like another empty suit – an image which has dogged him ever since.

But what a difference two years can make. Starmer stuck at it, and in the intervening period the Conservative Party has debased itself in ways unimaginable: racism, transphobia, wanton cruelty, conspiracy, corruption and good old-fashioned incompetence. This hideous farce reached its nadir last week at the Tory conference in Manchester, where in a breathtakingly desperate and cynical pivot, Rishi Sunak opted to put governing aside altogether, and start campaigning against Britain itself.

In turn, Labour’s lead in the polls has entered the tabloidese tier of whopping” (the broadsheets would say commanding”), with the party now making significant gains across both England and Scotland. It’s the kind of shift in the political arithmetic that makes their return to power, in a general election which has to, by law, be held within the next 15 months, almost inevitable.

So when I saw that Starmer would be strolling into Liverpool’s ACC Exhibition Centre for this week’s Labour Party Conference with this wave of political momentum behind him, I got a little bit curious: how does he sound nowadays?

To hype myself up for the big speech, which was due for the Tuesday of the party’s five-day knees-up, I canvassed its attendees to see if they could do a Starmer impression. Not a single person could.

Not the copper on the bridge to the exhibition centre, and not Nigel from the Liverpool Echo on the corner of the Albert Dock. Not the leafletter for voting reform or the leafletter for media reform. Not the spaced-out American tourist who, until our conversation, had been oblivious to the conference happening 100 yards away. Not the media spokesperson for an anti-abortion charity, because he couldn’t go that nasally”. Both Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani and anti-Brexit campaigner Femi Oluwole paused to mouth sounds out to themselves in preparation of trying, before concluding that, no, it just wasn’t possible.

So it was the strangulated thank ewe conf-runce, thank ewe, thank ewe,” that reached me first, beamed into the fourth floor of the Maritime Museum as I sat with a lovely local councillor who dished out Smarties for me as we sat to watch the speech together. And then, silence. The audio was cut from the conference feed and the room recoiled in horror: a hapless People Demand Democracy protester in a very noughties blazer-and-tee ensemble had glitterbombed Sir Keir.

The camera switched to the conference crowd in the haunting way that I hadn’t seen since Christian Eriksen collapsed at the Euros. When the audio returned, Starmer was barking: Protest or power?! Protest or power?!” His fizzing enthusiasm only served to underscore: this was the voice of the next leader of this country. Whether we like it or not.

Starmer went on with the speech, pledging in tubthumping style to build more homes, get the NHS back on its feet” and recruit more police officers to reclaim our streets”. But outside the conference hall, and across the city itself, a different clip of Starmer was circulating – a TikTok deepfake of the Leader of the Opposition confessing what Scousers have always suspected: that he fucking hate[s] Liverpool” and that they all call [him] a Tory.”

Liverpool is Labour’s provincial capital, in both senses of the term provincial”. Support for the party is axiomatic: people vote red by default – even the blue half of the city, who otherwise find the colour so repulsive that they don’t even like Santa Claus wearing red. But there is a deep, deep distrust of the modern Labour Party. After years of the party being able to take votes for granted – from the imposition of Luciana Berger as the candidate for Liverpool Wavertree in 2010, to the scandalous reputation of Joe Anderson’s near-decade-long mayoralty – the people of the city these days think differently of those with a red rose pinned to their lapel.

I bumped into an old school friend who has since become a well-regarded figure in the local party. Earlier in conference, he had been harangued by a conspiracist TikToker who kept him from his cigarette to press him on the plans for the 15-minute cities” that had become a point of contentious debate at the Conservative Party conference a week prior. That talking point – most prominently boosted in the city by footballer Rickie Lambert, formerly of Liverpool, Southampton and the England national team – has become the latest tendril sprouting out of Liverpool’s conspiracist turn.

But when we spoke, my politico friend’s first concern was not for the city’s beliefs but his own.

How do I feel?” he asked back at me, before confiding: I’m a Marxist in the Labour Party, this Labour Party.” This Labour Party is Sir Keir Starmer’s, one that’s leaning further to the right and, as I find out, is avowedly gun-shy on the topic of public spending. And with the party crawling inexorably to power as the current government eats itself alive, the watchword was for total message discipline – with any deviation unlikely to be dealt with softly. In the queues for the conference hall itself, even benign old ladies handed out modest leaflets calling for boosted health spending with a reassuring note of Don’t worry! You won’t get expelled for taking one!”

There was a contrived self-seriousness smothered over everything that played out on the docks of the Mersey throughout Conference’s long long-weekend in the city. I hadn’t managed to get a pass for Labour’s secure zone”, the main hall and hotel. But that’s OK, because all the real action happens outside – at the fringe events, the rallies, the cafes, the bars.

I saw the screaming skirmishes between pro-Palestinian protestors and outraged Zionists, gleefully stoked by GB News rent-a-gobs and agitators from Britain First. I heard laughably crap pro-EU parody songs blasted at deafening volume to audiences of no one. I watched the legions of shuffling, soft-bellied suits move from panel talk to panel talk, their greying hair thickened by wodges of L’Oreal Men Expert ExtremeFix hair pomade. This will likely be the last time they commune en masse before the next general election. This time next year, these people could be the most powerful set in Britain.

But beyond all else, they drilled home the point that whatever you might hope for, you must remember: Labour are going to have no money when they’re in power”

Every incoming regime needs its true believers. I found them in the upstairs of the confusingly named Revolucion de Cuba bar on the Albert Dock, right next door to the similarly named, similarly inauspicious Revolution bar.

I had arrived on the promise – nay, the boast – of the party journal LabourList putting more than one thousand pounds behind the till” for activists to use on super-strength rum cocktails. Bright young lanyard-wearers swarmed the place to hear rallying speeches from party grandees such as the bearish Barry Gardiner, Labour’s hypeman-in-chief, who rattled through a sheet of gags about the five Tory Prime Ministers we’ve had since 2010. He was like a timewarp of satirical punchlines: David Cameron and the pig, Theresa May and the fields of corn, Lettuce Liz and some particularly blue material on Boris Johnson, viz: The Conservative party are like the KY Jelly of politics – they let even the biggest pricks in!” Boom-tish.

Once Gardiner finished his Comedy Cellar routine, the floor gave way to all manner of anxious yet enthusiastic functionaries: chairs of membership committees you’ll never hear about; shadow ministries you’ll never read about. One of them, whose name would escape the room as much as it escapes me, made an awkward case that Labour couldn’t be like North Korea… We will lose again” – a nakedly hilarious thing to say to a room full of campaigners. What I loved most, however, was the qualification practically every speaker would make before launching into their spiel. That was either Everyone says we’re boring, but we’re not!” or Everyone says we have no policies, but we do!” So I resolved to look beneath the rhetoric, and put those two statements to the test.

My first port of call was to do with The Social Value of Rail”. I’d had an absolutely dreadful train up to Liverpool from London Euston – of course I did, I always do – so it felt natural to go and see if the future of rail might include trains that aren’t shit and expensive. When I arrived at the panel, I was the only person not in a suit, the only person not in the rail industry, and the only person to make use of the free, albeit bland, banana bread.

The four-man panel consisted of two guys who had worked together for years in those strange local government jobs that some of your friends’ dads might have, the parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool, who looked a bit like the Honey Monster, and the Wealdstone Raider-esque chief executive of Hitachi Rail UK. On my chair was a magazine on social mobility with a leading feature from the former MP for Barrow and Furness, John Woodcock, championing Starmer’s desire to re-establish Labour as a natural party of government”. Woodcock, who left the party in 2018 under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, has recently returned to its fold as Lord Walney”, having been ennobled by Boris Johnson for supporting his Brexit deal. Social mobility in action.

The panel were very good at agreeing with each other: about coming from the North East, about loving the North East, about the positive impact of trains and the poor rail infrastructure. They made dry references to HS2 that were delivered as jokes but were actually just bits of data (“£36 billion?”). One thing they were unanimously giddy about, to an unnerving degree, was something called procurement reform”, designed to simplify the relationship between businesses and the public purse. The mere mention of it unlocked a burst of energy among the four of them, jolting the otherwise sleepy discussion into life.

But beyond all else, they drilled home the point that whatever you might hope for, you must remember: Labour are going to have no money when they’re in power, so you can’t always have what you might want. At one point, the guy from Hitachi Rail said: I understand that the opportunity to see an exciting fast train go by is very exciting for young people… but please don’t think this is what we’re looking at.” An oddly crushing sentence that struck me, and stayed with me, for the rest of the conference.

Whichever panel I went to, that sensation was reinforced. On the panel on the loneliness epidemic, the MP for Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater (who was, to be fair, the most energetic public speaker I think I’ve ever seen) was quick off the blocks to tell the packed-out room that we cannot just keep chucking money at the NHS.” In a quiet, early-morning talk on green leadership” that I attended primarily for the free sausage barm, I heard experts on precious minerals concede that Labour won’t be bothering with big, ambitious public spending for net zero, in the spirit of Joe Biden and his $1 trillion Inflation Reduction Act (known and referred to constantly by its unfortunate acronym).

If the Labour party left power last time leaving private notes on desks saying that they’d run out of money, this time they’re shouting it from the rooftops: We are skint!” Starmer says it, the soon-to-be-chancellor Rachel Reeves says it. Being back in power will mean making hard choices about the big things. But what stunned me most about the Labour Party conference was that they were not waiting for that responsibility. They had already started moving in the circles where the hardest decisions are made, where power really lies: with statecraft, soldiers, and the international stage.

If only the protestors howling at one another outside of the conference hall could see how gentle and chummy the tone of conversation was”

Cut off from the docklands where the Conference was otherwise contained, the Liverpool Hilton was the most interesting place to be.

This is where the real movers and shakers had chosen to stay, not the swotty sorts who positioned themselves in the two hotels either side of the exhibition centre, nor your bargain-hunting desperados at the Crowne Plaza on the other end of the Pier Head. A lifetime ago, I snuck into what was essentially Steven Gerrard’s leaving do here. Powerful people don’t often bother going anywhere else – screw the rest, get the best and all of that.

I’d arrived for a talk titled Ukraine and the West: what next?”, hosted by the fabulously vague Royal United Services Institute, a name that read on first glance like four completely meaningless words in a row, with the type of logo you’d see stamped onto the leg of an Action Man. They were, however, RUSI: the world’s oldest defence and security think tank, founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831. They are chaired by the Duke of Kent, and count the former heads of both MI6 and the CIA as Senior Vice Presidents. This was their debut appearance at the Labour Party conference.

Astoundingly, I slipped in without a single person checking me for a pass, asking for my name, or engaging me in the excruciating smalltalk I’d dealt with at every other event. I made a beeline for the front row, and ended up blocking the view of the Slovenian Ambassador to Britain and fighting for leg space with a member of the Ukrainian parliament. It was exhilarating. I could be anyone. How is this even possible?

Only one of the guests had arrived by the time the talk began: Margaret Beckett, the first female foreign secretary, and now the longest-serving female MP in history. Considering her seniority, or perhaps because of it, Beckett was allowed free rein to be markedly off-message. The chair, a sharp-suited Scot with an uncanny resemblance to actor Walton Goggins, took Beckett through the foreign policy issues of the day like a game of word association, as he vamped for time and the second attendee remained absent.

We started with Russia and Ukraine. Beckett bemoaned that Russia had made such a huge effort” in her time to ingratiate themselves with the UK, and what a shame it was that their position had changed. But, calmly, she said never say never” on welcoming them back into the fold. On the Middle East, too, the atmosphere was more jovial – a neck-snapping gallows humour given the horror that was unfolding in real-time between Hamas and Israel – as the chairman chuckled about earlier suggestions in the foreign policy community that the region had been calm for a while!” If only the protestors howling at one another outside of the conference hall could see how gentle and chummy the tone of conversation was.

Finally, after half an hour, the second panellist arrived: John Healey, Shadow Defence Secretary and – again, not trying to be mean – a man who, with his pointed ears and bald, gnarled scalp looks so much like a goblin that it’s hard to think about anything else when he’s in your line of view. Healey had, just that moment, finished his speech over at the other edge of the waterfront, and would have arrived with us earlier were it not for a surprise appearance from the Prime Minister of Kosovo – a guest who, in the midst of his own crises back home, would not typically come all this way to meet the party of opposition.

In stark contrast to the rest of the Labour frontbench, Healey could speak without budget constraints. Where everyone else will be cutting back, Healey’s department will re-arm Britain”, defence spending will increase, money will be found, cuts will be reversed. The room, full of diplomats, analysts and no doubt a few members of the intelligence community, took this news warmly. A member of the audience asked Healey directly about whether he intends to continue selling fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. Healey squirmed, forehead rippling in astonishing ways, as he calibrated an answer. We have a great relationship with the Saudi Air Force…” he said, before a pause that felt like a lifetime. And we would continue those deals, yes.”

Protest or power? Sir Keir Starmer knew, as that question rang out through the conference hall to whooping cheers and standing ovations, as it calmed the nerves of the party faithful, as it rankled the vanquished socialists and stole the show for the Six O’Clock News, that he was asking this rhetorically.

This is no longer a Labour Party of principled stances and valiant causes. Instead, it is already submersed in the gritty realpolitik of the national interest” and the levers of government. That is: power. And it’s coming – some would say blessedly, after a ruinous 13 years of abhorrent Tory misrule, and the decline of just about every facet of British life. You know it, I know it, and given the sad, grasping behaviour of the Conservative party last week, Rishi Sunak knows it, too.

The processes are in place, the conversations are being had, the would-be ministers of Starmer’s inner circle are no doubt jostling for the plum spots and big departments. Barring an electoral catastrophe of historic proportions, Labour will be sweeping to power next year with a mandate large enough to run the country for a generation.

Then again, they said the same about Boris. Taking power is one thing. Deploying it properly is another.

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