Silver Blaze is one of Conan-Doyle’s best-loved stories: Sherlock Holmes has to solve a killing and find a missing race-horse – and of course he does both. At one point the following exchange takes place between Holmes and Colonel Ross, the owner of Silver Blaze:
Ross: “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Ross: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
This seems like an apt metaphor for last week’s Labour Party Conference (LPC23):
- The conference was tightly-run, disciplined, up-beat and well-attended;
- It has been well-received by the press, the public and by senior figures outside the party;
- The curious incident was all that was not said.
The conference was tightly-run and well-attended
With the exception of the moment when a Just Stop Oil protester ascended the platform and sprinkled glitter onto the Party Leader as he began his speech – an interruption which Starmer handled well – the conference unfolded as planned.
Unlike the previous week’s Conservative Party conference, the auditoriums were full; even the overflow rooms were full. While there was an active fringe, the most popular speeches at LPC23 were not disaffected former PMs or cabinet ministers jostling for the position of next leader, but the Shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition.
At LPC23, the speeches were carefully crafted and disciplined: they projected an image of calm confidence and responsibility. They were light on policy – but that was not unexpected – and there were important announcements on workers’ rights, green energy, housing and social care among others.
Rachel Reeves also announced plans to appoint a Covid Corruption Commissioner to track the billions lost in waste, fraud and flawed contracts, and return this to the government for spending on health and education. Reeves estimated the cost of Covid fraud is more than £7bn. We estimate it to be vastly higher than that.
The message was clear: “We are ready for government; there is a lot to fix, and it will take a decade to fix it, but we are ready and able to do that work.”
It Was Well-Received Outside the Party
Press comment has been largely positive. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian was gushing:
“To those doubters who still think Labour’s plans tame, take time to read the national policy forum document. The mood music will remind you how a victory for this Labour party would herald a sea change. ‘Breaking the class ceiling’ was never said by Tony Blair. Jobcentres will stop the venomous culture of sanctions against ‘scroungers’, with positive support into work instead. Cutting child poverty is what every Labour government does. Gone will be meanness to children, and that Gradgrind fixation with exams designed to eliminate, not encourage. It’s good to see the words ‘bolster the BBC’s independence’, and a hundred other things a world away from Torydom.”
Even the Daily Telegraph reported: “Labour support rises to almost double that of Tories after Keir Starmer speech.”
And indeed, snap polls suggested that the public had reacted positively.
At worst, the Labour lead seems intact; at best, it has started to rise again slightly. And in terms of the popularity of the two main party leaders, the news is far better for Starmer than it is for Sunak.
In a further boost to Labour’s credibility, former Conservative minister, Anna Soubry announced that she will be voting Labour in the next election.
And the ex-Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney said:
“Rachel Reeves is a serious economist. She began her career at the Bank of England, so she understands the big picture. But, crucially she understands the economics of work, of place and family. And, look, it is beyond time we put her energy and ideas into action.”
The Curious Incident Was What Was Not Said
To understand UK politics, you must understand both the structure of UK media ownership and the concept of the Overton Window.
Media ownership in the UK looks like this:
More than 60% of total readers in the UK consume media owned by one of four off-shore, tax-avoiding billionaires with a strong vested interest in this government remaining in power. And to a surprising extent, the broadcast media follow the lead set by the press. Social media, which used to provide an alternative view, are also now largely owned by people with a similar agenda. As a result, most people have little idea of the risks the current government poses to our wealth, our health and our democracy.
These media owners have not been shy of influencing previous elections – and even trumpeting the fact.
Several past Labour leaders have seen their prospects of election destroyed by these media – Kinnock, Milliband and Corbyn at least. And the press have shown already that they will do the same to Starmer if they get the chance.
In politics, some things are acceptable and some are not. But which things are acceptable and which are not is not fixed over time: some ideas which would have been too outlandish even to discuss 100 years ago are now generally accepted and have passed into law – gay marriage, for example – and other things which were commonplace just a few decades are now illegal, such as smoking on aeroplanes or in pubs.
And to a large extent, what is acceptable is determined by our media – the current concern over immigration, for example, has been largely constructed by a sustained barrage of hostile media coverage.
The ‘Overton window’ describes the range of policies which can be discussed and possibly acted upon by politicians. It illustrates how some ideas may be perceived as too extreme left and others as too far right while others are perceived as mainstream.
Politicians can ‘safely’ campaign inside the window; if they stray outside, they risk being perceived as dangerous extremists and becoming unelectable.
Labour’s speeches and policy announcements at LPC23 were carefully designed to squeeze through the Overton Window. That means that there are many things which are true and important – and would in principle be desirable for them to say – but they did not say them.
Given our media landscape, this decision is probably essential to Labour’s electoral prospects; but it is deeply damaging to our democracy not to have a frank discussion of the key issues we face as a country.
The good news is that the reign of this extremist version of the Conservative Party seems likely to end within the next 14 months. The bad news is that UK democracy remains under serious threat:
- It is still not impossible for this extremist Conservative Party to win – and if they do, the UK may well not remain a democracy in other than name;
- Labour are right that a decade of national renewal is needed; they may not be right to assume that they will have a decade in power.
It is therefore essential that Labour tackle the constitutional threats to our democracy during their first term – because it may be their only term. We wrote recently about the kinds of steps Labour needs to take to tackle the democratic crisis we face. They need to take them in their first term.
If you would like to see them taking those steps, then:
- Make sure you will be allowed to vote at the next election;
- Use your vote tactically;
- Do whatever you can to raise awareness of these issues – for example by sharing this article using the buttons below.
And if you are a politician from any party who would like to see a return to sanity, please reach out.
If you think you might like to help more, take a look at The 99% Organisation and join us.