This year’s Labour Party conference was not short of drama, with a row over party rule changes and a surprise shadow cabinet resignation providing the build-up to Keir Starmer’s first in-person conference speech since his election as party leader. After a difficult year, and in the face of continually strong polling for the government, this was, inevitably perhaps, billed as Starmer’s “make-or-break” moment. The Labour leader’s attempts to break with the era of Jeremy Corbyn and his measured attacks on Boris Johnson provided clips for the TV bulletins, but away from the headlines and the hecklers this year’s Labour conference also offered insights into the policies he and his shadow Cabinet are prioritising for a future Labour government. Our expert IfG team were in Brighton, patrolling the fringe events and conference floor to listen to key announcements and analyse the revealing statements.
1. Rachel Reeves shared a tax strategy but little in the way of detailed economic policy – Gemma Tetlow
In her first conference speech as shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves sought to shore up the Labour party’s reputation for economic competence and fiscal prudence – in much the same way that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did before 1997. But there was a lot more detail on the failings of the current Conservative government than there was on what Labour would actually do to achieve better results. Empty supermarket shelves, queues at petrol stations, the £20 cut to Universal Credit, the abandonment of previous industrial strategies, failure to meet previous debt and borrowing targets – all were highlighted as examples of the Conservatives’ economic and fiscal incompetence. But there was little detail on what she would do differently. Briefing to the Financial Times ahead of her speech suggested that she would sign up to meeting fiscal rules very similar to the government’s – but that detail was absent from the speech. This lack of detail is forgivable at this stage of the parliament. It is right that the opposition take time to consider its options, rather than committing too early to approaches that are later found not to work.
However, Tax is one area where there were positive signs of Labour taking a measured approach. Reeves laid out some principles that the Labour party believes the tax system should meet – fairness, efficiency, and support for business. She said a wide range of tax reliefs would be reassessed in light of these principles and highlighted areas they think are particularly in need of radical reform – in particular, business rates. But she did not spell out exactly what changes would be made or how lost business rates revenues would be recouped.
This approach – of setting out clear objectives and then assessing existing taxes against these – is one that the Institute for Government has advocated for. Doing so should help ensure a more coherent tax system and help a government to make the case for more radical reform, which will inevitably create losers as well as winners. The acid test will be how Labour translates these good intentions into detailed policy as the next election approaches. It is inevitably much easier to lay out worthy objectives than it is to convince people of the detailed policy proposals when you still have to raise the revenue needed to fund public services and social security.
Keir Starmer described Boris Johnson as a “trivial” man with one trick, and “once he said the words ‘Get Brexit Done’ his plan ran out”. In contrast the leader of the opposition said he had plans for the health service, education, employment, the justice system and better use of technology, among many other areas. There was also much talk at fringe events about the need to harness the power of government, and to join up different parts of the state to do more for citizens. Shadow ministers seemed to be starting to think seriously not just about what they want to do in government, but about how it might be achieved.
The charge that the government lacks specific delivery plans is a fair one, as shown by its struggle to define what ‘levelling up’ really means and the prime minister’s acknowledged need to focus on implementation for the second half of this parliament. But a Labour government will also need to face up to the likely difficulties in implementing the policies that are now grabbing the headlines. Knowing how to use the office of prime minister will be crucial for Starmer, and his team – inexperienced after well over a decade out of government – should use some of the time before the next election to make sure they understand the administrative levers of government as well as developing their political vision for the country.
With the government increasing funding for schools, social care, and the NHS, Labour sought to draw clearer lines against the Conservatives by emphasising a focus on prevention.
Starmer sought to frame his speech in this way, arguing that “the future of the NHS can’t just be about chasing extra demand with more money” and promising that a Labour government would focus on prevention, such as greater mental health support. This has merit – although many previous governments have found this difficult. The pressures of governing can mean the urgent crowds out the important.
Another key theme was resilience – not just whether public services are performing well, but whether they have enough spare capacity to weather crises. As panellists at our event noted, the crisis illustrated the need for a more resilient NHS – but also a resilient society. A resilient NHS might need more public health services, as much as more beds and staff.
Tackling the climate crisis was a key theme of the conference, with frontbenchers framing faster action as not only the responsible thing to do but an opportunity for British industry.
Rachel Reeves said she wanted to be the country’s “first green chancellor”, a swipe at Rishi Sunak who has been inconspicuous on climate. She made a headline-grabbing commitment to invest £28bn per year – £224bn to 2030 – on the green transition, funded through borrowing. This is around four times current levels of public investment, and while critics will argue this could lead to spending in areas that could be better tackled though policies and regulations that incentivise private investment, most analysts think current levels of public funding are well below what is needed for the UK to get on track for net zero.
However, Labour has yet to set out the detail of policies it would adopt to reach net zero and how it would target spending. Reeves mentioned areas including the hydrogen industry and the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries and offshore wind turbines, emphasising the need to capture the benefits of the green transition in the UK. Keir Starmer announced a “national mission” to insulate people’s homes, as well as a sensible proposal of a “net zero test” on all spending. But Labour’s announcements this week have put further pressure on the trio of government strategies – an overarching net zero strategy, a plan for decarbonising homes, and the Treasury’s review of the costs – all still due with just four weeks remaining before COP26.