At the packed party for Frances O’Grady’s retirement as TUC general secretary, a close friend Keir Starmer allowed himself to show a little more excitement.
Labor spinners will chime in on how the party is showing no complacency and there have been warnings from the shadow cabinet that the poll is weak. But Starmer showed in a relaxed speech at the rally, full of leftists great and good, that he was really starting to believe in it.
“It feels like this year is a turning point for us in the Labor Party,” he said. “You can feel what is happening through our confidence, you can feel the buzz – a Labor Party that is on the rise, moving, getting ready… with the confidence to take on the general election, and the confidence to be in government to go. ”
It is a very new feeling for most Labor MPs and even veteran shadow ministers. At least three senior figures said they struggled to really understand that the poll was real. “I think it’s a widespread belief that many of us just don’t believe it,” said one. “I just think we’re going to be fighting for our lives again at some point.”
Another said, “I have a feeling in my stomach that I just shouldn’t allow myself to believe it.”
Starmer has a similar problem that Gareth Southgate faced with the England team, when he had to change the mindset of his players so they didn’t automatically think they were wearing the heavy shirts of perennial losers.
A senior Labor adviser said: “The stuff about complacency or arrogance is misplaced – we’re all waiting to admit three at the last minute.”
A Labor MP said they, like many of their colleagues, had until recently struggled to believe the party was poised to govern, but said spending time on the campaign trail ahead of the Chester by-election puts them off convinced that the national poll was real. “It was already clear on the sidewalk that we are really that far ahead. And what we saw that night was that the Tory vote just didn’t show up at all.”
Why is the possibility of Labor returning to power so difficult for so many MPs and aides to grasp?
First, there is very little government institutional memory; in the shadow cabinet, only Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper have been cabinet ministers before. For most of the rest, their entire political experience has been a ruthless defeat.
Some Labor MPs said Harriet Harman played an important internal role in the party as one of the few survivors of the pre-1997 era. “Harriet has been telling us all along, ‘Don’t worry, that’s how it felt in 1995, too,'” one said.
Gordon Brown also effusive at the launch of Labour’s devolution plan this week that the electoral ground was now even more fertile for Labor than it was in 1997. But there is also another aspect that many in the parliamentary party harbored doubts about Starmer’s leadership until as recently as this summer, with questions about whether he really had the persona or the politics to fight.
Now the party is much more disciplined, but if pushed, many will admit that it’s the poll that changed its mind, not particularly Starmer’s own actions. But there has also been a concerted effort by Labor strategists to change what one influential adviser calls the party’s ‘loser mentality’ – and to ensure that MPs speak of Labor in government with confidence and are taken seriously.
Whether Labor MPs believe it or not, there is an outside call to try to understand the party’s thinking from those with vested interests – and a newfound earnestness for the party’s policies to be treated with respect.
There was joy in Starmer’s office on Monday as newspapers were dominated by stories about Labor policies: the launch of devolution, Angela Rayner’s push to get the government to release information about Michelle Mone, an announcement from Wes Streeting on the front of the Times and Lisa Nandy leads resistance coverage of Michael Gove’s pandering to the rebels on housing targets.
This week hundreds of executives and lobbyists turned out for a Labor business event in Canary Wharf. Rachel Reeves [the shadow chancellor] spoke to many companies and most were impressed,” said one lobbyist. “Besides, the Tories have the stench of death around them right now.”