Rare sight of a relaxed Keir Starmer shows he is starting to believe

The ‘no complacency’ talk will continue, but Labour must now surely feel like it has turned a corner

At the packed party for Frances O’Grady’s retirement as TUC general secretary, an among-friends Keir Starmer allowed himself to show a little bit more excitement.

Labour spinners will brief fiercely about how the party is showing no complacency and there have been warnings from the shadow cabinet that its poll lead is soft. But Starmer showed in a relaxed speech at the gathering, packed with the left’s great and good, that he was starting to really believe.

“It feels like this year is a turning point for us in the Labour party,” he said. “You can feel what’s happening through our confidence, you can feel the buzz – a Labour party that’s on the march, on the move, getting ready … having the confidence to take on to the general election, and the confidence to go into government.”

It is a very new feeling for most Labour MPs and even veteran shadow ministers. At least three senior figures said they were having difficulty really comprehending that the poll lead was real. “I think it is a widespread view that many of us just don’t believe it,” one said. “I just think at some point we will be back to fighting for our lives again.”

Another said: “I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I just shouldn’t allow myself to believe it.”

Starmer has a similar problem Gareth Southgate faced with the England team, when he had to set about changing his players’ mentality so they did not automatically think of themselves as wearing the heavy shirts of perpetual losers.

One senior Labour adviser said: “The complacency or arrogance stuff is misguided – we are all just waiting to concede three in the last minute.”

One Labour MP said they, like many of their colleagues, had until recently struggled to believe the party was on the brink of government but said spending time on the campaign trail for the Chester byelection persuaded them that the national poll lead was real. “It was clear on the doorstep that we really are that far ahead. And what we saw on the night was that the Tory vote just completely failed to show up.”

Why is the possibility of Labour returning to power so difficult for so many MPs and aides to get to grips with?

First, there is very little institutional memory of government; in the shadow cabinet, just Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper have been cabinet ministers before. For most of the rest their entire experience of politics has been relentless defeat.

Some Labour MPs said Harriet Harman had been playing an important internal role in the party as one of the few survivors from the pre-1997 era. “Harriet has been going round telling us: ‘Don’t worry, this is what it felt like in 1995 too,’” said one.

Gordon Brown was also effusive at Labour’s launch of its devolution plan this week that the electoral ground was even more fertile for Labour now than it was in 1997. But there is also the other component that many in the parliamentary party harboured doubts about Starmer’s leadership until as recently as this summer, with questions about whether he really had the persona or the politics for the fight.

Now the party is much more disciplined, but if pushed many will admit it is the poll lead that has changed their minds, not especially Starmer’s own actions. But there has also been a concerted drive from Labour strategists to change what one influential adviser calls the party’s “loser mentality” – and get MPs to speak with confidence about Labour in government and get taken seriously.

Whether Labour MPs believe it or not, there is a clamour externally to try to understand the party’s thinking from those with vested interests – and a newfound seriousness that the party’s policies are being treated with respect.

On Monday, there was glee in Starmer’s office when the papers were dominated by stories about Labour’s policies: the devolution launch, Angela Rayner’s drive to get the government to release information on Michelle Mone, an announcement from Wes Streeting on the front of the Times and Lisa Nandy leading coverage of the backlash over Michael Gove’s caving to the rebels on housing targets.

This week, executives and lobbyists turned up in their hundreds to a Labour business event in Canary Wharf. “Rachel Reeves [the shadow chancellor] has been talking to a lot of companies, and mostly they have been impressed,” one lobbyist said. “Besides, the Tories right now have the stench of death about them.”


Jessica Elgot and Kiran Stacey

The GuardianTramp

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