Last month, Keir Starmer, over two years in the job as Labour leader, stepped up to make only his second keynote speech to the Labour Party conference. It was the focal point of a hugely successful week in which Labour showed themselves as united, credible, and ready for government.

The Labour Party returned to Liverpool this year for the first time since 2018. A blustery few days on the King’s Dock of the River Mersey awaited hundreds of ordinary members, politicians, and journalists alike. The country has changed in the last few years. The Labour Party has changed with it.

Attending a party conference is a strange experience. You are firmly inside a bubble. This involves simply walking past an innumerable number of journalists and politicians, as you head for lunch, as well as the ability to react to events unencumbered by the framing of the media. Protestors also like to greet you, as you enter the secure zone. A personal highlight was an anti-Brexit demonstration, lambasting the country as chicken noises and creatively claiming that the Prime Minister would ‘deport[ed] you to Mars’. Objectively less fun was the Piers Corbyn cabal, giving it another run after last year, who were unafraid to shout and spit vitriolic abuse, as they peddled their dangerous, anti-science rhetoric.

This was my second Labour conference, and the difference from last year could not have been starker. Barely removed from disappointing local elections in May 2021 and the debacle surrounding Angela Rayner’s sacking-but-not-sacking, Keir seemed increasingly assured and confident, as he took to the stage in Liverpool. The room was behind him. Recent opinion polls suggest the country may be as well. Undoubtedly, much of the poll lead is due to the Tory implosion, but voters are not mindless sheep. They will not immediately flock to Labour when the Conservatives are in strife. They must be given a positive alternative to the current chaos in Westminster.

A year ago in Brighton the resignation of Corbyn-supporting shadow cabinet member Andy McDonald, controversy surrounding the Deputy Leader’s language in the Commons, and fierce debates over some of the party’s internal rules suggested to the country that Labour was a divided rabble. It was probably a fair assessment. The leader’s speech was interrupted by heckling from a few delegates disgruntled with his refusal to back a £15 minimum wage.

Labour remains a broad church, and policy debates like this are welcome. However, they must not take the form of inward-looking, mindless jabbing at one another in factional disputes. ‘Country first, party second‘. As Rayner, who now (at least publicly) seems to have a much better working relationship with Team Starmer, expressed in her speech to close the conference: ‘When we deliver 99% of what we promised, we talk endlessly about the 1% we didn’t instead.

The much slicker operation this year shows clearly how far the party has come. The Shadow Cabinet now appears to be at ease in their roles. While it is true some of them still lack that fabled ‘cut through’ with the public, they were each given a moment in the spotlight during the conference. Starmer’s oratorical skills are still not his strongest asset. He seems somewhat better suited to a fireside chat than a rousing speech to the masses. But around him, he has trusted allies with said capability.

Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, and Ed Miliband 2.0, with a key role as the shadow minister seemingly leading on the radical pledge for 100% clean power by 2030, all gave barn-storming speeches on the conference floor. Moreover, policy was successfully drip-fed throughout the week, culminating in the remarkably-not-leaked announcement of a publicly-owned energy company, targeting the most important issue of our time. Compared to the Conservative’s ministry of none of the talents, Labour is appearing as an increasingly well-oiled machine.

Confidence is growing amongst the Labour membership. And why shouldn’t it be? The Tories are divided, have lost their poll lead on the economy, and Labour is starting to offer a clear policy agenda on which to govern. Finally, we have seen some bold announcements on energy, railways, housing, the NHS, water, and, if a leaked report is to be believed, the constitution. Our political reality demands such changes after a dark twelve years of conservative rule. Furthermore, Labour is now a credible party of government, with the biggest attendance of businesses at the conference since 2010.

As I queued to see the leader’s speech, I felt the sense of positivity around me. Despite being repeatedly told we would not make it into the hall, I could see not a single member leave the line. Microphones were shoved into our faces as we waited by journalists desperate for a soundbite reflecting the authentic perspective of the Labour grassroots. I finally made it into the hall minutes before the speech began. Starmer entered to a standing ovation and would receive many more over the course of the next forty-five minutes. With the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement in shot directly behind the Labour leader, the hall rose as one as Keir reflected on the work the party had done to address the shame of antisemitism.

Labour still has only around 200 MPs, the next general election is potentially over two years away, and more work must be done to flesh out the headline policy announcements we have already seen before we have a manifesto fit to take to the country. Keir Starmer is still hardly a charismatic leader in the vein of Blair or Obama. But quietly and effectively, for someone relatively inexperienced in politics, he has shown great political skill.

From securing an inner London safe seat for the 2015 general election, to changing the Labour party and making it start to face the country, he is unafraid of doing what is necessary. There is still a long way to go before we rid the country of this Conservative government, but across a week in Liverpool Labour showed it is willing to do what is necessary to win its first election in over 17 years.