October 9, 2023 - 3:00pm


The atmosphere at Labour’s annual conference stands in defiant contrast to the prevailing winds of British politics. Pessimism has captured those on the Right, with the generals of Brexit most likely to chastise the government on issues such as immigration, policing and tax. Foreboding is rife among Scottish nationalists too, with talk even of a possible collapse after last week’s by-election defeat. And while the Liberal Democrats remain the virtuosi of local campaigns, they’ve failed to create a wedge on the issue of EU membership. While they are likely beneficiaries from Tory demise across the English South, that is also to the advantage of Keir Starmer.

After that thunderous result in South Lanarkshire last week, Labour is truly starting to believe. 

Attendees at conference, including those sceptical of Starmer, are buoyed by the prospect of power. Representatives from multiple trade unions told me they knew that they were marginal actors — but that they still stood to benefit from a majority Labour government. The volatility of politics in recent years also means those who dislike Starmer — or who are concerned by the absence of a strategy for government — can reasonably speculate that things could quickly change after any election win.

One surprising advantage in appearing to not believe in very much is that others presume you are amenable to persuasion. Perhaps that is why hardcore Remainers are endorsing Starmer — despite the man himself ruling out even membership of a customs union. Elsewhere, those who favour proportional representation are convinced he can still be won round, despite a spokesperson briefing earlier this year how the Labour leader has a “long-standing opposition” to electoral reform. For much of the last 13 years, people would slice their membership cards in two over such points of difference, but the possibility of power offers a strange and curious alchemy. 

Yet the substance of what Labour is offering is as threadbare as emotions are high. On Sunday, Angela Rayner outlined how her party would address the housing crisis. The plan is to oversee the building of 1.5 million homes over five years, primarily through “getting tough” on developers. But even this target — of 300,000 new homes a year — is a tacit admission of failure given it is estimated Britain needs to build more than 440,000 a year, for a quarter of a century, to solve the housing crisis. On perhaps the single biggest issue facing under-45s, Labour is yet to arrive at the starting line.

Then there is the quest for growth. Speaking to the BBC on Sunday morning, Keir Starmer was adamant that “stability” was the missing ingredient in order for Britain’s economy to bounce back. Given productivity has stagnated for 15 years, this seems deeply unserious. Does anyone actually believe the answer to the country’s “productivity puzzle” is simply a well-coiffed prime minister who won’t say something insane when they think nobody is watching? 

The Green Prosperity Fund, much lauded by Rachel Reeves, would cost as much as £28 billion in the final year of any first term. The pretence remains that this will somehow be funded through changing planning regulations and the crossing of fingers. In its own way the “Starmer project”, currently being feted even by the likes of the Financial Times, is as delusional as anything conjured up by Liz Truss.

Finally, there is the NHS. Here too Labour is prone to highlighting problems on an almighty scale, yet proceeding to act with caution verging on impotence. Over 7.6 million people are presently on NHS waiting lists. In England there are 47,000 vacancies for nurses, and 110,000 vacancies overall — a figure which could rise to over 300,000 by the late 2030s. The idea that such a challenge can be addressed through funding overtime for existing staff — as was proposed by Labour on Sunday — is absurd. It is akin to screaming “fire” as one’s house burns down and then brandishing a water pistol. 

The exuberance at Labour Conference is palpable, but the vacuum of policy is a powerful counterweight. Have so many ever been so excited by so little? For now the possibility of removing the Conservatives, and gaining political power, is intoxicating. But it’s hard to imagine that will long endure once Labour is tasked with solving the country’s myriad problems. Nigel Farage knows this as he plots the future of the British Right from opposition. The question is: does the Left?

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.