Labour’s time “has come again”, the Liverpool metro mayor has said as he urged Sir Keir Starmer to set out a positive vision at the party’s conference.
As Labour prepares to stage what could be its final conference before the next general election, Steve Rotheram said he could feel a “buzz” similar to 1996 when Tony Blair prepared to lead the party to its landslide 1997 victory.
In an interview with the PA news agency, former Liverpool Walton MP Mr Rotheram said: “It’s a sense that our time has come again.
“I’m getting that sort of buzz that something exciting is about to happen, that we can actually change this country for good.”
Labour begins its conference in Liverpool on Sunday with a double-digit lead over the Conservatives and on the back of a victory in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election that has been taken in some quarters as a sign that the party’s road back to power could be eased by surging support in Scotland.
He said: “Hopefully what you are going to see is a party that’s champing at the bit to get rid of this lot now, 13 years of just incompetence, so I’m looking at the conference and I think you will see that united party saying let’s get rid of this lot.
“That’s always a really good thing for us because we rely on volunteers. It’s the Labour Party members that make this party great, so we need them to be enthused, to go out there and think there’s a prize for us to actually win.”
But he also urged party leader Sir Keir to use the conference to set out a positive vision of why people should vote for Labour, rather than just against the Conservatives.
“We’ve all got the same values and principles, so how do you articulate what that is in a national context and start to give people hope that things can change.”
He added: “I think a lot of what’s been happening has been the Tories are terrible, and that’s quite right. Why shouldn’t we explain to people how bad this Government are? But alongside that it’s great if we can say, ‘have a look at what we’re doing’.
“We’ve got some great policies in certain areas, but we will hopefully start to see some of that teased out here as a package.”
Mr Rotheram has big plans for the Liverpool City Region, including turning the Mersey into “Britain’s renewable energy coast”, leveraging a £30 million fibreoptic cable network to make the region a centre of digital industries, and rolling back “more than 30 years of Thatcherism” by taking back control of the region’s bus network.
He said: “For ourselves, we’ve got decentralisation not devolution and we need genuine opportunities and powers and levers, with those flexibilities, to do things that we believe are our priorities here.
“A monolith like central government shouldn’t decide what they believe is in our best interests. We are directly elected and people can quite quickly get rid of us if they don’t believe we’re doing the best for the area that they live in.”
One particular area Mr Rotheram would like greater control over is skills. The former bricklayer is passionate about apprenticeships and has called for more control over how the apprenticeship levy is spent, allowing regions to match training to skills shortages.
“I want to see, for instance, kids choosing apprenticeships because there’s good jobs at the end of it and not necessarily – if it’s not right for them – feeling that they have to go to university and accumulate that huge debt because they believe that’s the only way they can get into the labour market.”
On the first day of the conference, Labour announced that it would set up specialist “technical excellence colleges” that would see local government and businesses working together to address local skills needs.
While Mr Rotheram sees devolution as a positive and has hailed his friend and fellow northern mayor Andy Burnham for showing what a local focus can do, the announcements surrounding the end of HS2 left him frustrated.
The announcement means a major problem for the proposed high-speed link between Liverpool and Manchester, which would have used some HS2 track.
Mr Rotheram is not convinced that the £12 billion promised by Rishi Sunak will be enough to make up for this, especially if new stations need to be built.
“But we’re back to the drawing board and that means further delays built in.”
He was also scathing about the division of the savings made by cancelling HS2 under the new Network North plan, that has seen some money offered to projects in the south of the country.
He told PA: “I think there are more deserving areas in the North – Oxford and Cambridge and potholes in London, they’re really ‘northern’ priorities for the Tories.
“It’s not a surprise but it’s no less galling. It’s disappointing, but it’s creative.”
The cancelling of HS2, and the apparent lack of consultation ahead of the decision, has damaged regional leaders’ trust in central government – something Mr Rotheram said would change completely with a Labour government.
He told PA: “Just imagine that means we can cut through all the Mickey Mouse party political stuff and just get on with things and deliver.”