Starmer needs to avoid Sunak's immigration and benefits trap, while sticking to net zero guns – Barrie Cunning

After the Conservative conference reveals much about the party’s election strategy, Labour must prepare for increased scrutiny of its plans

Every year, parties of all political colours hold their annual conference, which is an opportunity to press the reset button, spell out what’s wrong with the country and what they plan to do to change that, whilst rallying the troops for the forthcoming political fight. But whilst political conferences are important, the one that takes place just before a general election is without a shadow of a doubt the most significant, with the spotlight on both the current administration and the official opposition, as what they say often gives an indication of the main focus areas in the run-up to the election.

This week, Rishi Sunak gave his first speech as Conservative leader in which he attempted to present himself as the change candidate, somewhat distancing himself from his former Tory leader predecessors of the last 13 years by claiming that the status quo – or as he put it the “old consensus” – will no longer suffice and that he will “tell it as it is” and “lead in a different way”. He signalled a major move from what he described as “30 years of a political system that incentivises the easy decision, not the right one” – hence his decision to scrap the HS2 high-speed rail line in an effort to show decisive leadership and that he is the person to take Britain forward.

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To me, this “tell it as it is” message is desperate stuff and on par with Jeremy Corbyn’s “straight-talking politics”, which means very little and delivers absolutely nothing. In the minds of voters, it is nothing more than just another political soundbite of the kind we have all become used to. But I’m all for telling Sunak how it is, and it can be summed up by putting the word ‘crisis’ after housing, NHS, education, and now key infrastructure projects.

But, let’s be honest, this is a government that’s on its knees, devoid of ideas, running out of breath, and resorting to the Thatcherite book of soundbites in nothing more than a throwback to the Tory heydays of the 1980s – “get on your bike” and find a job, Norman Tebbit drivel. But compound that with what they have been saying about immigration and tackling the small boats and the need to bring in stricter sanctions on benefit recipients, especially those on unemployment benefits, and it’s clear that they intend to fashion a narrative about fairness for the British people and that this will become the core Tory focus in the run-up to the election.

Contrast that with what Keir Starmer will say in his leader’s speech at the Labour conference in Liverpool next week, in which he is expected to talk about a positive vision for the country with a focus on fixing “broken Britain”, while also conveying a sense of hope for future generations. This is underpinned by a series of positive key messages that Labour has the back of the British people, British business and British industry and that no one will be left behind under Keir’s leadership as he will make the right decisions in the national interest. This is what the British public has been crying out for for a long time and that is the change that is needed, not Sunak’s self-perceived, made-up definition of the word ‘change’.

They say that being the leader of the opposition is the loneliest job in British politics, but all eyes will be on Keir as he spells out how, after 13 years of Conservative rule, the country is in need of change and that process starts with an incoming Labour government which has the energy, ideas, vision and determination to deliver the change that is needed with a commitment to tackling the cost-of-living crisis and providing the much-needed stability the UK needs.

Whilst it’s easy to say that the current government is out of touch, and I genuinely do think they are, the reality is that the conference speeches by Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have all the hallmarks of a focus-group analysis which will resonate with a certain cohort of the electorate. My main concern is that Sunak is laying the foundations for a trap which, if Labour isn’t careful, could end up being sprung.

What do I mean by this? Well, whilst I fundamentally disagree with anything the Tories stand for, they have put a marker down in policy terms that people can easily understand with regard to net zero, the need to reform welfare policy (although by reform we all know they mean punish those on benefits), and taking a tough, or in my opinion an inhumane, stance on immigration. All this is a prelude to what we can expect to become amplified over the next year, especially as we get closer to the election which they will hope will carry them over the threshold to form the next government.

At some point, media scrutiny of Labour’s policy position will intensify and it’s vital that Keir stays on track with our commitment to net zero but he will have to elaborate on our position in terms of how it will be achieved. He also needs to ensure he doesn’t get drawn into a debate that plays into the hands of the right-winger’s default narrative of blaming those on benefits or people coming to the UK to seek refuge.

Barrie Cunning is a former Scottish Labour party candidate and managing director of Pentland Communications



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