What does Liz Truss's restoration of the politics of right and left mean for Labour?

Credit: PA

Here in Liverpool, at the start of Labour conference, politics feels more familiar than it has for many years, and also quite confusing and not wholly predictable.

And the cause, mostly, is Friday's budget, which very deliberately delivered the bulk of additional income from tax cuts to those on highest earnings.

This feels in many ways like a return to the kind of class based politics - what used to be called class war - we haven't seen since the Thatcher years of the 1980s, because, ever since the election of Blair's New Labour in 1997 we are all supposed to be middle class.

So you might think, 18 years after Labour last won an election, that it would suit Keir Starmer and the Labour Party down to the ground to paint the Tories as simply on the side of the rich and privileged.

But it is a bit more complicated for them than you might think.

Because if the Tories and Liz Truss are encouraging industrial strife, with their tax policies, their promise of a bonfire of EU employment protections and their intention to make it harder for trade unions to strike, a Labour party that is seen as a fixture on the picket lines won't appeal to large numbers of floating voters in the centre ground.

And to be clear, there are a large number of trade unionists and Labour members here who are furious at what they see as a brutal attack by the government on their ability to protect the living standards of millions of workers.

So Starmer has to pull off two tricks this week.

First he has to paint the Tories as the ideological extremists, who are taking tremendous risks with the stability of the economy, with our national prosperity, by the sheer scale of tax cuts that will see the UK's national debt rising inexorably for years.

It's not the toughest task Starmer has faced, partly because of breathless enthusiasm from right wing commentators and economists for Kwarteng's budget, which looks very much like the Tory equivalent of the breathless enthusiasm of the Corbynistas in 2017 for Labour's then programme of wholesale nationalisation and redistribution via higher taxes and much greater public spending.

It's true that Labour did much better than many expected in the 2017 general election. But Corbyn still lost. So Tory MPs may live to regret the almost religious zeal of the Trussystas for her promised bonfire of taxes, planning constraints and business red tape.

This is not a point about whether an extreme right or extreme left party can ever win in the UK. It's about whether a party that is seen to be destabilising the economy can win.

So Tory anxiety, like that of all of us, will be directly correlated with whether the slump in sterling we saw on Friday, and the surge in market interest rates, is sustained into the coming week - and how much of that is seen as generated by Kwarteng and Truss, and how much by the growing concern of a hard economic landing in the US.

Starmer would though be ill-advised to under estimate Truss - who has seen off astonishing numbers of male Tory competitors for assorted political jobs, including the top job, largely because they misjudged both her determination and her ability to sell an ideological vision.

The most important point about Truss right now is that she is selling a vision to the British public of an economy that can grow at twice the current rate, after almost 15 years of stagnation, and would make everyone better off.

It is a vision of hope. And it is a pretty simple one to understand, even if - for many - it's very expensive pie in the sky.

Economists can sneer and cavil all they want that what she and Kwarteng are actually generating - at best - is a short term economic economic boom, that will fizzle out within months, having solved few if any of the UK's underlying productivity problems.

The point is that voters might roll the dice on it if Labour seems only boringly competent - important though it is for Starmer to look like a credible PM-in-waiting.

The most important task for Starmer is no longer to be the anti-Corbyn, which is essentially how he has managed his public image to date.

If he is to prove that polls showing he has a good chance of winning the next election are an important forecast, and not just a snapshot of the Tories' horrendous last few months of chaos, then he needs to use this conference to offer a competing vision of hope for Britain.

This will be a turning point conference for Labour if Starmer and his colleagues can do more than say what's wrong with Truss, and explain simply and excitingly what's right about them. In politics, explaining what a better Britain would look like, and how it can be built, convincingly, is the hardest thing to pull off.

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