After spending the week at the Labour Conference, MD and Co-Founder of Confluence Consulting Simon Hamilton reflects on how the Keir Stamer’s Party is preparing for power and what a new government might mean for business and Northern Ireland.
Guinness’s Rugby World Cup marketing campaign has encouraged Irish fans to “Think It. Dream It. Don’t Jinx It”. It could equally have been the slogan for the Labour Party’s Conference in Liverpool last week.
There was a palpable air of optimism amongst Labour members as they met on the banks of the Mersey with continued references in speeches to what an incoming Labour administration would focus on should it win power next year.
But what wasn’t evident, or obvious at least, was any sense that victory was inevitable. It felt like almost every utterance about winning the next general election was heavily caveated with comments like ‘if the British people do us the great honour’. It was almost like an instruction had gone out to every Labour member that they weren’t to do or say anything that could be construed to be taking the election result for granted. So much so that when I remarked to a senior party figure about when Labour win, their immediate response was ‘touch wood’!
One segment of society that did seem to have made its mind up about which way the political wind was blowing was business. With twice as many businesses reportedly beating a path to the event compared to last year to such an extent that the Financial Times called the conference “Liverpool Davos”, it wasn’t just Labour delegates themselves who sensed electoral success was on the horizon. It was very reminiscent of the mid 1990’s when new Labour under Blair and Brown actively courted the business community, with companies like Google, Mastercard and SSE very visible in the venue and on the conference stage this year.
The economy was front and centre in many conference speeches with talk of economic related missions, a new industrial strategy and reforms to business rates and the apprenticeship levy, but they were a little light on detail at times – something Labour have been criticised for more generally.
There may have been no really big eye catching economic announcements but that didn’t matter. It was all about the long term, a decade of renewal. Calm, careful, cautious even, and a clear contrast with the chaos of the Conservative conference the week before. After three terms of Tory led government, where Brexit has done damage to the Conservative’s traditional image as the party of business and with the carnage of the Truss interregnum still fresh in the mind, speaking to many business leaders at the conference, I got a strong sense that industry likes what it sees in Keir Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, even if they haven’t heard as much as they might like.
If there wasn’t much of substance said about the economy, there was even less spoken about Northern Ireland. We shouldn’t have expected otherwise. This was a pre-election conference and Northern Ireland isn’t likely to focus much in the national debate. We got a mention here and there but only ten minutes was allotted to a ‘Northern Ireland Report’ in the main conference hall late on Monday afternoon.
For those of us who were interested, there was something, or rather someone, we wanted to hear from. Hilary Benn is a Labour veteran, a real ‘big beast’ of the party, and this was his first conference in his new role as Shadow Secretary of State. He seemed to be everywhere. Speaking at a range of events and exhibiting at each his experience and knowledge of Northern Ireland and the issues we face, which have, in part, been honed by his previous chairmanship of Parliament’s Brexit Committee.
What would he bring to the Northern Ireland role? He is a serious, thoughtful, considered man. All qualities that the Northern Ireland brief desperately needs. He also seems fair and balanced in his approach. Whilst being crystal clear in his call for an immediate return of the institutions, he did talk about implementing the Windsor Framework in a sensitive way, acknowledging unionist concerns.
He was also explicit that a Labour government would be much more engaged in Northern Ireland. Referencing the Belfast Good Friday Agreement as the last Labour administration’s greatest success, Benn gave the impression he’d be more hands on and that a Starmer premiership would be actively trying to restore Stormont. His recent visit to Belfast seems to have struck a chord, with Benn expressing admiration for how our economy has been transformed but also pointing towards huge opportunities in the future that may arise from the region’s unique dual market access.
What is also apparent is that a Labour government will seek a much closer relationship with the European Union, with the Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy describing the current situation as the floor and not the ceiling. Many, including the local business community will welcome that and it could well clear up many issues, but others might fear that the prospect of a closer relationship between the UK and the EU, although the right thing for NI, might inadvertently further delay the return of Stormont.
Cautious optimism is probably the best phrase to sum up the mood of the Labour Conference. We in Northern Ireland should also be cautiously optimistic that should Keir Starmer lead Labour to success, then we will have a government in Downing Street that, although it will pay most attention to other issues, will take an active interest in embedding our peace through building our prosperity.