Isabel Hardman

Starmer is missing a major trick

Why can't the Labour leader capitalise on a crisis?

Starmer is missing a major trick
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Labour's party conference slogan is 'stronger future together'. It's sufficiently anodyne that despite it being emblazoned all over a massive set in the hall, no one mentions it at all. Instead, the slogan the party's senior figures seem to have adopted is 'why didn't the government have a plan for this?'

It's the refrain you hear over and over again on everything, from Covid cases to school exams to the current fuel crisis. In fact, on that last one, it's really the only thing you will have heard at all from Labour's frontbench, who seem only mildly aware of what's going on in the world outside the conference bubble. All of these party events are a bit isolated from the rest of the news agenda, but this particular conference bubble has very thick walls indeed. Starmer is making an intervention today, which seems rather flat-footed given the crisis has been building for days.

The Labour leader has a reputation for feasting on the government's misfortunes but he hasn't seemed very hungry over the past few days. Inside the hall, there is little recognition of the problems that key workers in some parts of the country are having getting fuel to travel to work. The most attention-grabbing bits of the conference so far have been: Andy McDonald resigning, Angela Rayner calling the Tories scum and Starmer getting tied in knots over gynaecology. At a push, Rachel Reeves's whopping £28 billion annual climate investment fund has been vaguely interesting.

If the Labour leader thinks the fuel shortages constitute a crisis, why not reflect that by tearing up large parts of the conference? Get your frontbenchers to relentlessly prosecute the government's failure to anticipate the driver shortages, its weakness in stopping the public from panic buying, creating the fuel shortages, and its slow and confused response even now on whether the army will get involved. Even better, call for parliament to be recalled: something the government would struggle to do, thereby making Boris Johnson look weak. 

The Tories have left a gaping open goal for Labour to capitalise on this fuel crisis, telling broadcasters they aren't putting up ministers for interviews because of the longstanding convention during conference that the party holding its meeting that week gets space on the airwaves. So why isn't Labour using the airwaves, the conference hall and the fringe to make the most of the unusual amount of attention it is being paid? Perhaps the question isn't just why the government didn't plan for this, but also why Labour doesn't have a plan either.