The last time I attended the Labour Party’s annual conference was two years ago. I was a few months in the job at Best for Britain and in a rain lashed Brighton, the general mood matched the weather. Hosted a few weeks before the Partygate scandal broke, which marked the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson, the man looked unassailable. Despite a catastrophic pandemic response, he had successfully convinced enough people that he’d done his best and after almost two years of tacit support in the national interest, Starmer and his party appeared anonymous as they sheltered in hotel bars along the waterfront. Two years later and everything has changed, changed utterly.
This week, the sun was shining on Liverpool and Starmer as an estimated 18,000 members, delegates, industry reps, journalists and yes, campaigners like us descended upon the city for the annual conference. With a consistent 20 point lead and feeling like they have one foot in Downing Street’s door, the vibes were noticeably more upbeat as an influx of business bigwigs cosied up to what most now see as the government in waiting. Doing it before it was cool, Best for Britain was on the ground as usual to spread the good news of Brexit fixes and tactical voting to VIPS, MPs, policy makers and decision takers.
In a cavernous convention centre and located distractingly close to the Sainsbury’s Scalextric track, the two Best for Britain stalls proved a popular destination over four days. MPs and Labour candidates in particular sought us out for valuable insights into their constituencies and Best for Britain’s tactical voting plans.
Despite the Brexit omerta that had descended upon Liverpool, we were determined that the government’s dreadful deal, which continues to cost businesses and consumers billions every year, hobble our economy, and crush the dreams of young and old alike, was not ignored. Helpfully, we weren’t just complaining. Our team was armed with constructive proposals for Labour to do something about it and polling to back it up.
Alongside our large display of UK Trade and Business Commission reports, notable for their 114 recommendations to improve Britain’s trading arrangements, we had a huge interactive map where attendees could see exactly how popular these policies were in constituencies across Britain. Based on an MRP poll of more than 10,000 people, delegates could see that from Remain voting Stirling to Leave voting Skegness, a closer relationship with the EU was the preferred option compared to greater divergence or the status quo.
Simultaneously, our automated stall opposite, confronted attendees with the human cost of our broken electoral electoral system. Footage from our wildly successful Can’t Wait Campaign showed how living standards have worsened and our public services denigrated because a single party has been able to secure total power with a minority of votes.
Away from base camp, the Best for Britain team were hard at work elbowing their way into fringe events, networking with stakeholders, hassling journalists and eating a lot of beige food, all in the name of fixing the damage caused by Brexit and fixing our broken electoral system. But the highlight came on Monday night.
Yes, knowing what it takes to get footfall when there’s a dozen simultaneous events and all with free booze, Best for Britain partnered with SME for Labour to bring one of Westminster’s most popular events to Liverpool. The Best for Britain Reception, fuelled by the Kebab Awards, had no awards but it was standing room only with more than 500 attendees including MPs, high profile Labour candidates, journalists and business leaders.
If polling is to be believed, the event was addressed by two future cabinet ministers, Hilary Benn and Nick Thomas Symonds, both of whom waxed lyrical about the incredible work Best for Britain does and how important it is to fixing the problems that Britain faces after Brexit. Indeed, the very reason we partnered with SME for Labour on this event was because we have spoken with hundreds of British businesses over the past few years. Their evidence was the basis of the aforementioned 114 recommendations that we continue to campaign for.
Of course, we’re not so deluded to believe that our event was the highlight for everyone. Most of the hype was for Keir Starmer’s speech which, while encouraging in many respects and positively sparkling in others, had only one mention of Brexit. About 40 minutes in, Keir Starmer said he wants to, “hold out the hand of partnership to business.” Our CEO Naomi Smith, rightly quipped that “business leaders will want Labour to extend their other hand across the Channel to improve the shambolic Brexit deal.”
Despite this, there can be little doubt that the Labour Leader and his party have their eyes on the prize. With potentially less than a year until the next election, the difference between Tory and Labour conferences was plain to see. The choice on offer, responsible and passionate, if a little cautious, or outright lunacy and more division. But with endless distraction tactics and a system geared to favour the incumbents, we cannot take the result for granted.