The Labour Party: Is all that glitters gold?

Tom Doughty

Associate Director - Healthcomms

All that glitters is not gold, and despite Sir Keir Starmer being doused in glitter in the opening seconds of his Conference speech this week, he is yet to demonstrate his 24 carat credentials as a Prime Minister in waiting.

Any shine has long since faded from the Conservative Government, which certainly feels like a party that has had 13 long years in office. On the contrary, it might seem obvious to say, but the Labour Party looks like one that has had 13 long years out of office.

There was a buoyant mood at Labour Conference this week, with supporters united in optimism about their General Election chances. There was a sense of unity amongst the Party leadership that has been rare across all of politics in recent years. And this year’s conference had a corporate feel, with businesses anticipating the need to forge ties with the influencers and decision makers of tomorrow.

But in my view, there is a naivety about how far they have left to go. Starmer is right to warn his party to not get ‘giddy’ at the prospect of power. The road to Government before them is paved with challenges, particularly in relation to health and social care.

Conference started on Saturday with Wes Streeting’s announcement of the ‘Fit For the Future Fund’ worth £171m per year, aiming to double the number of diagnostic scanners in hospitals. A voluntary scheme will also enable staff to work at weekends to deliver two million more operations, scans and appointments per year.

All much-needed, I am sure. But £171m is just over 0.1% of the NHS budget for 2023. And some light probing from Victoria Derbyshire on Sunday looked to get the better of Keir Starmer when she asked why consultants would work for less money in the NHS on weekends compared to the private sector.

If the NHS must – to use Wes Streeting’s own words – ‘modernise or die’, and he is going to ‘turn the NHS on its head’, he will need to expand his policy offer for the NHS more comprehensively – a charge that has been placed at the door of most Shadow Cabinet members.

Some people told me it’s too early for policy. But if not now, when? We’ve heard Wes Streeting, Peter Kyle, Chi Onwurah, Andrew Gwynne and others set out a positive vision for life sciences and an innovation friendly NHS. But tight budgets mean tough decisions, and we don’t really know what Labour will choose to prioritise.

Streeting is a fantastic politician and he knows he can’t overpromise and underdeliver. Rachel Reeves is aligned and will use the Government’s credit card sparingly. They understand that change will not happen overnight.

But this leaves a public that is demanding and eager to see improvements quickly wondering what Labour really stands for. The worst position Labour could be in two years from now would to be seen as ‘just the same as the Tories’. So Streeting is going to have to get creative, all the while working to modernise a system that doesn’t really like to modernise.

Ultimately, sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it. It might suffice for Labour to say; “we will just be better than the Tories”. There is probably enough anti-Tory sentiment and stay-at-home Conservative voters to push Labour over the line with their positive vision for the country. The Conservatives’ best bet now may be to call a Spring Election to try and catch Labour napping.

This Conference was a chance for Labour to show they are credible and ready to govern. Are they credible? Absolutely. Are they ready? I’m not so sure.

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