The Labour Party is back in contention. Ignore them at your peril.

Having spent the past 16 years going to the party conferences, and sometimes up to 3 a year in those prelapsarian pre-coalition days when the Lib Dems were a credible force (57 MPs in the 2010 election, if you can remember), it is the mood of the event that is most instructive and gives you the best sense of where they are as a party.

There was a buzz around the Labour Party conference this year.

Yes, the Corbyn years had activist fervour and dramatic inter-party fights (figuratively and literally). Still, it always felt like a sideshow to the main event – the governing Conservative Party conference that came the following week.

However, this year felt different.

And not simply because the Government decided to hand Labour an open goal the day before the conference started with its ‘mini budget’ that destroyed 12 years of Tory economic orthodoxy and caused a run on Sterling, though that undoubtedly helped.

Nor was it just the Savanta MRP that predicted a 56-seat Labour majority in the next election, nor the YouGov poll giving Labour a 17-point lead – the largest support for the party since 2001.

No, it was a feeling in the air, in the poorly-ventilated fringe rooms, windowless corridors and packed bars – Labour is back.

Party conference always gives you this insight, the Blair years oozed confidence, impenetrability and a cult of personality around the leader, even after the outside world had turned against him.

In 2009, the Cameroonian conference felt buoyant and expectant, in stark contrast to the drab, apologetic Brownite affair the week before.

While the Corbyn years, for all their passion and debate, never felt like a credible government in waiting.

That feeling is back though, and it was palpable in Liverpool.

Labour believe they can win again and the outside world has woken up to the fact too.

This year’s conference was particularly notable because of the scale of interest from business and campaign organisations, sensing perhaps for the first time in a decade that it is worth engaging with His Majesty’s Official Opposition. The exhibition hall was filled with more than just your usual suspects, and the bars and restaurants of Merseyside were jostling with the corporate blue suit brigade who, in recent years, have been more commonly spotted at the Tory conferences.

And why not? Whilst we may have to wait until January 2025 for the next General Election, the mood of the country is shifting and, of course, business should be talking to the Labour party now, rather than wait for the result.

Seasoned public affairs professionals know this, but it’s worth restating.

Relationships are best built over time. Picking up the phone when you need something is much easier if you have taken the time to invest in the relationship over months and years, rather than coming to it cold. There is also the opportunity to be helpful to the shadow team right now – Labour is short on cash and resources, and thinking about where you can offer help, evidence or data or other resources to help them will stand you in good stead.

Particularly as Labour is in the process of writing its manifesto right now, so the opportunities to get in and shape thinking are now – not post-election. We have seen some policy announcements over the past few days, but much is still to be written and the devil will be in the detail for many businesses – waiting for them to announce them will mean you have missed the boat.

Worth noting too that in opposition, the key people are much more accessible – without the gatekeeping apparatus provided by the civil service, and with more time than they will have managing demanding ministerial briefs and events schedules. Make use of that time now to invest in relationship building, identify the key advisers and rising stars in the party and offer to help them.  The effort you make today will pay off in years to come. 

As half the attendees who were in Liverpool pack up their stands and dry-clean their suits for their next outing in Birmingham this Sunday, it will be interesting to see how the mood at the Tory conference compares.

God knows what will be going on with the economy (or the trains!) by the time we reconvene, but one thing is certain – the Labour Party believes it is back. 

Whatever your own political persuasions, it would be foolish to ignore them.