Starmer Stands Ground as Sunak Tries to Drag Labour Into Fight

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has a commanding poll lead over Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives with a UK election due in the next 15 months. It makes the opposition leader’s message at the annual conference in Liverpool straightforward: stay disciplined and don’t throw it away now.

(Bloomberg) — Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has a commanding poll lead over Rishi Sunak’s governing Conservatives with a UK election due in the next 15 months. It makes the opposition leader’s message at the annual conference in Liverpool straightforward: stay disciplined and don’t throw it away now.

What Labour called a “seismic” win in a special election in Scotland this week has bolstered Starmer’s claim that his party is on course for power, offering timely reassurance to delegates that his cautious political strategy is working.

Some recent surveys had shown Labour’s lead over the Tories narrowing to 16 percentage points from about 20 earlier. Sunak used his own party convention to try to reset the narrative, leaning on right-wing culture war rhetoric and a controversial decision to cut short the UK’s flagship high-speed rail project to make life awkward for Labour and create clear lines of division.

But a YouGov poll published Friday showed the gap between the two parties unchanged at 21 points, suggesting the cut-through with voters from Sunak’s speech to close the conference on Wednesday may be limited.

Starmer’s response will be to ignore the noise, avoid traps laid by the Conservatives and rise above Sunak’s new approach, Labour officials told Bloomberg, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Sunak’s efforts to position himself as the change candidate smacked of desperation, they said. 

Rather than fight on political ground chosen by Sunak, Starmer will stick to trying to demonstrate Labour’s fiscal prudence. Central to that is not making big spending commitments the Tories could attack, the people said. Starmer, for instance, avoided a politically tricky decision on whether to resurrect the expensive HS2 rail project when it became clear the government would quickly release the land for sale, blocking construction for future administrations.

Still, Labour will announce new policies at conference expanding on each of Starmer’s so-called five missions — growth, clean energy, healthcare, crime and opportunity. The party wants to be more ambitious on housebuilding and reforming Britain’s planning system, people familiar with the matter said, adding that big new spending pledges are unlikely.

In recent weeks, senior aides conducted an internal review of Labour’s political and policy positions to identify areas the Tories could try to target. None of the areas identified were hit during the Conservative conference, the people said. The most obvious is on tax, given Labour expects the Tories to try to reduce the burden on Britons ahead of a general election.

The picture that emerged from the Tory conference was of a party squabbling about whether tax cuts were affordable. If Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt does find fiscal headroom before the election, Labour won’t necessarily try to match because voters want better public services, party officials said.

Starmer’s plan hinges on discipline. Labour lawmakers and candidates were told to inform party staff of any panels they will speak at on the sidelines of the convention. The aim is to avoid what happened at the Conservative conference, when appearances by former premier Liz Truss and ex-Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage laid bare the rival factions in Sunak’s party.

How Labour interprets Sunak’s own strategy is also influencing Starmer’s plans. The opposition leader’s aides see the premier as trying to recreate the dynamics of Vote Leave’s successful campaign in the Brexit referendum. 

Starmer’s allies see key differences, including a lack of coherence around Sunak’s plans, from watering down the UK’s green agenda to scrapping HS2 and imposing a gradual ban on cigarettes. The Brexiteers also had a charismatic campaigner in Boris Johnson. Labour aides question Sunak’s ability to portray himself as a “change” candidate, given that he’s been premier for a year and was Johnson’s chancellor for another two.

But Labour’s cautious strategy continues to have its internal critics. Several of the party’s lawmakers and aides told Bloomberg there was still a realistic chance of the party failing to secure an overall majority at the election, because its landslide defeat under former leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 left it starting at such a low point. That means Starmer should be less cautious and show more ambition for the country, the people said.

An ally joked that when critics bemoan Starmer’s obsession with fiscal restraint, it’s worse than that: he really believes it. People close to Starmer describe him as sensible, with an ordinary background whose politics is steeped broadly in center-left social justice, but also politically ruthless and nimble. He’ll likely try to use the convention to contrast his realistic approach to fixing Britain’s ailing economy and public services with chaotic and disjointed approach of Brexiteers in recent Conservative governments.

Some in Labour fear that given how fast political narratives take hold, any narrowing in the polls would put Starmer under intense pressure. The leader’s team must guard against complacency, an aide said. Behind the scenes, Labour officials are working on a broader package of policies, some of which may not be announced before the election, but could be deployed if necessary.

Shadow ministers have been told to build policy programs on a two-term time frame, with Starmer’s allies warning the lesson of 13 years of Conservative rule is that infighting and policy lurches breed short-termism and failure.

Aides heading up to Liverpool are also aware of the danger of expectations. The party is riding high, with voters, business figures and journalists expecting to see an impressive showcase of an incoming government.

One Labour aide defined a successful convention in simple terms. If, in the 20 seconds a typical voter thinks about politics each week, they see a Conservative Party in chaos over high-speed rail and a Labour Party soberly trying to fix the country’s problems, Starmer will be happy with that, they said.

–With assistance from Ellen Milligan and Joe Mayes.

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.