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By Nikki da Costa
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Keir Starmer Is Emerging From A Make Or Break Labour Conference With Quiet Confidence

Keir Starmer Is Emerging From A Make Or Break Labour Conference With Quiet Confidence
7 min read

Keir Starmer seems to be leaving Brighton in his strongest position yet, despite the row over Angela Rayner’s “scum” comments and a surprise frontbench resignation threatening to derail his first in-person party conference as Labour leader.

Even the heckles on Brexit and the £15 minimum wage row that peppered his headline Conference speech didn’t seem to knock Starmer’s confidence. “At this time on a Wednesday it’s normally the Tories heckling me,” he jibed. 

Starmer boldly claimed Labour could win the next General Election, pointing to the Conservative government’s chaotic handling of a current labour crisis that has left supermarket shelves bare and petrol pumps empty. 

“I have loved my first full conference as leader but I don’t want to go through the same routine every year,” Starmer said. 

“In a few short years from now I want to be here with you talking about the difference we are making, the problems we are fixing as a Labour government.

“That is what this party is for. That’s the object of the exercise and as the leader of this party."

The overall mood of what has been trailed by critics as a “make or break” conference for Starmer was largely upbeat, if low-key, as he sought to break away from the Jeremy Corbyn-era. His team has talked up competence and credibility all week.

Starmer’s speech, which he began writing during a holiday in Dorset over the summer, was the culmination of a week in which despite the leader not being the big star of his own conference, saw him achieve much of what he set out to do.

Allies say although there is a long way to go, and admittedly from a low base, progress is being made towards reviving Labour’s electoral chances.

By forcing through rule changes he has effectively shut out the far-left from future leadership contests, and having shifted the balance of power on the party’s ruling national executive has taken a secure handle on the party machinery.

On Sunday a motion on antisemitism was passed and led to Jewish former MP Louise Ellman announcing she was re-joining the party, with hecklers shouted down on the conference floor.

That evening Starmer told every event he attended Labour has “closed the door” forever to antisemitism now, and was seen having breakfast with Ellman and name checked her at the top of his speech.

Meanwhile the left, unhappy at what they see as Starmer’s failure to make good his promise of party unity, feel back “in the wilderness”, pushed to the margins of the Labour party once more.

As if to rub it in, Starmer was only too happy to reference former Labour prime minister Tony Blair's famous "education, education, education" slogan, as he told a packed conference hall his party would launch "the most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation”.

He also praised Labour members, saying "they saved this party from obliteration”. 

"It will not take another election defeat for the Labour Party to become an alternative government in which you can trust, that's why it has been so important to get our own house in order this week, and we have done that," he added. 

Starmer believes these times “demand a responsible leader with clear values” as part of a relentless focus on professionalism and wanting to be seen as “a government in waiting”.

A Labour insider pointed to the fact internal focus groups in “Red Wall” seats show those who voted Tory in 2019 are beginning to turn on Boris Johnson and question whether the government is competent enough to handle the challenges ahead.

It appears to have had some effect. A former special advisor to Tory Cabinet ministers, now working in the private sector, revealed he was overall impressed by Labour’s conference, saying it felt “much more professional” than he had expected.

“It feels like they’ve got their shit together a bit,” he told PoliticsHome at a fringe event.

This morning David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, admitted “the road may have been a bit bumpy at points”, but said Starmer has come out “as cool as a cucumber”.

It certainly has been a bumpy few days, starting with comments by his deputy leader Angela Rayner on Saturday night, when she described Conservatives as “homophobic, racist, misogynistic”, and most infamously “scum”.

They sparked a predictable round of outrage by Tories and had threatened to overshadow a conference which was not brimming with news lines.

But Starmer has ridden it out, as he has with the criticism that he was embarking on a pointless internal wrangle over the party’s rule changes.

A senior source admitted it gave “every journalist the chance for a piss-take”, but said it had to be done this time around rather than wait another year, potentially six months out from an early election in 2023.

“We had to just take the piss-take for three days”, they said, adding it was a fight worth having despite criticism that with a fuel crisis and food shortages the focus of Labour was too inwards.

Starmer only made his first meaningful comments about the issue on Tuesday evening, more than 24 hours after a raft of health and care groups – and London mayor Sadiq Khan – had called for petrol to be prioritised for key workers.

The Guardian described frustration within the shadow Cabinet that he failed to attack the government more forcefully on the issue, which has led to the army being placed on standby to prevent the country grinding to a halt amid panic buying.

Meanwhile the rule changes have had a knock-on effect, with the bakers’ union deciding to end its historic ties with Labour and formally disaffiliate from the party. 

Its general secretary Ian Hodson has previously been threatened with expulsion, but yesterday they accused Starmer of leading a “factional internal war” and of trying to divide the trade unions and the membership.

But a shadow cabinet minister played down its significance. “We needed to remove the barnacles from the boat and there was always going to be choppy waters,” they told PoliticsHome. 

Another MP said: "If I'd known they were leaving I'd have baked a cake to celebrate the good news of a shift in balance and to ensure we are even more focused on policies, on winning and improving people's lives in the future under a Labour government."

The Labour leadership were also hit by a mid-conference resignation, with shadow employment rights secretary Andy McDonald stepping down in a row over whether the party backed a £15/hour minimum wage.

The left sought to use it as a clarion call. Richard Burgon and others at a Morning Star rally said this was evidence Starmer needed to change tack, but the exit of the “last Corbynite in the shadow Cabinet” also came and went.

But the row over the £15/hour policy did lead to a raft of protests during his lengthy speech, though he hit back early. 

“You can chant all day” Starmer retorted. Critics also held up red cards in protest at his leadership. 

But shouts of "throw them out” were also heard, with a protester’s “no purge” poster ripped up. 

"Shouting slogans or changing lives?" Starmer quipped to sustained, supportive applause. 

“Work, care, equality, security,” he added in a powerful closing declaration.  

“These are the tools of my trade. And with them I will go to work.”

 

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