It’s not often that Barnsley is at the center of things, but this weekend the town hosted Labour’s Yorkshire and the Humber regional conference with a special visit from both Keir Starmer and Labour’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves.
The packed hall listened to a sombre prime minister-in-waiting talk about the effects of 12 years of the Conservatives in charge and the damage done to the economy.
Starmer’s speech in Barnsley
“I would love to stand here and say Labour will fix everything”, he said. “But the damage they’ve done to our finances and public services means things are going to be really tough … You can’t build a fairer, greener Britain without first restoring economic stability.”
The truth is that the Conservatives are trashing the country with their economic ineptitude, and no one really knows the extent of the problem. The failure to publish any independent assessment of the economic impacts of Kwasi Kwarteng’s tax cuts had repercussions – not least because there was nothing to calm an already spooked financial market.
Labour is right to be cautious. A massive bounce in the polls is unlikely to be sustained for any length of time (although by the same token, it’s hard to see how the Conservatives can recover). The polls, some three weeks after Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget, are still showing Labour on around 50%. But those of us with long memories can recall how the expectations of a win in 1992 soon turned to abject disappointment.
Unprecedented situation for the country
True, these are different circumstances. And the polls are stronger, but the economy is not. In fact, it is in tatters. And both Starmer and Reeves know that a first term Labour government will have a job of work to do to turn things around.
In his speech, the Labour leader said the current situation is “unprecedented”. He pointed out that the fact that the Tories are still desperately clinging on shows that, “It’s party first, country second and that is unforgivable”. It’s a line that’s appearing in many of his speeches now and it’s a line that’s landing well.
I listened to Starmer’s speech on Saturday, just as I sat and listened in the conference hall some weeks earlier in Liverpool. There is a lot of substance appearing and a strong narrative around green growth through green jobs, about energy security and how to get the cost of living down. There is a deep understanding that if you leave this many people in poverty, you won’t be able to grow the economy.
Policy commitments from Labour
Much has been made of Labour’s promise to invest in new, green technologies. The commitments to deliver both HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are equally important to the region. The Independent reported this from Starmer’s speech:
“But what I do know is her government has promised to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail 60 times and we’re all still waiting for action. My suspicion is you’ll go on waiting right up until my Labour government wins power, until Labour delivers Northern Powerhouse Rail and the HS2 in full.”
Starmer also committed, once again, to driving up home ownership through affordable housing, including a government mortgage guarantee scheme and reform of the planning system.
The audience lapped it up. Those hostile to Starmer have either left the party or reconsidered how they feel given the polls and the increasing prospect of a Labour government.
The scale of the task though is massive.
As ever it was the questions from delegates and the motions debated that really showed some of the things we in Yorkshire are confronted with in our communities.
There’s the issue of appalling environmental pollution on the full length of the Yorkshire coast; cost of living and energy bills for industry as well as for individuals; cuts to essential services; the failure to fund our rail and bus network and deal with capacity issues; and the calls to take private water company back into common ownership.
And there was one really important issue that touched everyone – the future of adult social care. Speaker after speaker talked from personal or family experience of the failure to provide care for vulnerable people – leaving people isolated and neglected. And in many cases destitute, as they dip into savings to pay for care.
No trust left in this government
All these things are classic doorstep issues. Go and ask anyone if they have problems with their local buses or if they have a relative that needs additional help or care – or even if they are worried about what will happen to them as they get older – and the answer is ‘yes’. Labour knows that all these things need urgently addressing. And Starmer knows all this will be difficult to sort overnight given how much the government has tanked the economy.
The U-turns on economic policy announced by Jeremy Hunt yesterday will do little to ease concerns about this government. There is no trust left in the government’s management of the UK economy. And soon there will be no Truss.
Labour has to wait until the party can get the keys before they can lift up the bonnet and see what state the engine is in. In the meantime, Starmer and Reeves are refining their offer – and it’s an offer that is increasingly attractive. Look what Tesco boss John Allen said yesterday – Labour is the only team on the field. And it’s a team that has a game plan that may be put to use sooner than we think.