Keir Pressure: The State of Labour
After a challenging 18 months as the new Labour leader, Keir Starmer and his party now share a single focus: 2023.
This is when Labour strategists believe the next general election will most likely take place. The projected timeline means there are three key chances for Keir Starmer to be visible before his ultimate make-or-break test: this Labour Conference, the next Party Conference and the election campaign. The leadership’s working assumption determines its central aim for Labour Conference 2021, the first in-person party-wide gathering since Starmer became leader, which is to turn the page on a number of difficult issues.
The first problem to overcome is Labour’s recent history with anti-Semitism and bitter factionalism. Much of Starmer’s first year was spent taking control of the party’s machinery, from the appointment of a new on-message general secretary, David Evans, to similarly friendly placements on the ruling national executive committee (NEC), and responding to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
This included the decisions to suspend Jeremy Corbyn from the party, then unsuspend him, then follow up on his readmission by suspending the party whip, resulting in a situation where the former leader is now a Labour member but not a Labour MP. The controversy has deepened divides within the party, which makes a departure from infighting highly improbable.
The second requirement for a fresh start is moving on from the “non-political” period of coronavirus and “the weirdness of it,” in the words of one insider. The intention is for the Labour leader’s speech, taking place after all Covid restrictions have been lifted, to shift the party away from the awkwardness of the pandemic and towards the more ordinary task of setting out what the country would look like under a Starmer-led Labour government.
There have been repeated attempts since the start of 2021 to reset Starmer’s leadership, but Conference is when he will have a real-life audience to address – and his speech is guaranteed media attention. Many supporters expressed hope it would be shaped around a principle, such as aspiration, rather than an area of government like the economy.
In years to come, Labour Conference 2021 may well be best remembered for passing the EHRC rule changes, which will include a newly-independent complaints process. The new system is intended specifically to improve the party’s handling of future allegations of anti-Semitism, but is set to cover all disciplinary cases relating to protected characteristics.
Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), wants members to know: “There’s only one way to go. You either understand that the EHRC and its findings were grounded in fact, grounded in law, and the party needs to do something to tackle them… or there’s the door.”
Labour is legally obliged to implement the equality body’s recommendations by the end of the year, which means they must be approved at Conference. This is Starmer’s only “must-win” of the conference, says Luke Akehurst, secretary of “old right” faction Labour First, as losing the vote would lead to “unimaginable consequences”.
Katz explains that ratification “absolutely has to happen for the party not to be mired in enforcement action from the EHRC, let alone it being the next important step in the party’s journey of rebuilding trust with the Jewish community”.
While the JLM chair cautiously says “nobody’s ever confident about a vote of this importance until we actually see it,” it is expected that any opposition from delegates would not be significant enough to block the changes.
Left-wing activist group Momentum, for example, has not focused on the EHRC proposals but instead concentrated on putting forward a number of rule changes for “expanding and cementing greater democracy within the party”, as co-chair Gaya Sriskanthan describes them.
Asked what the Labour leader must do to have a successful conference, the Momentum head replies: “Keir has always said that he wants to unite the party.” This is the focus of the Labour left at the grassroots. They want a return to the Starmer seen in the leadership election, when he stressed the importance of party unity and floated ideas such as a “Prevention of Military Intervention Act”. Left members were convinced he could be Corbyn in a sharp suit, with less baggage and better approval ratings. Some feel this vision has failed to fully materialise.
Alongside fighting what it calls the “undemocratic crackdown” on members, at Conference Momentum will challenge the leadership to adopt radical policies. Allied with middle-of-the-party delegates, they have a better chance of passing policy motions than rule changes, though this is partly because the stakes are lower as the party is not bound by the results.
Labour to Win, the new pro-Starmer equivalent, has also endorsed policy proposals, but these are uncontroversial and already have the backing of Labour’s frontbench.
After internal issues are dealt with in the first two days of Labour Conference, headline speakers will begin taking the stage. This is when Starmer would like to depart from the party’s inward-looking pursuits, including the important EHRC reforms, and address the country in a way that marks the end of the Covid era. Speeches from shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, and Starmer himself are the core of this mission.
Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, says Reeves must be positioned as “a totally credible equal to Rishi Sunak”, and he expects her to talk about “bread and butter, family finances, rather than just national finances”.
Above all, the media will be drawn to Starmer’s turn. His assignment, according to aides, is to provide a compelling narrative and an argument for making Labour about the country rather than itself. It will be future-focused: they say Starmer is less interested in analysing Labour’s past failures than seizing the mantle of a “party for change”.
“A huge amount rests on him delivering a speech which is compelling and rich in content,” says Akehurst, who points out that the leader’s speech “in recent years has taken on even more importance because it closes the conference rather than happening on the Tuesday”.
The unique opportunity that the annual gathering presents is keenly felt by Labour representatives, such as Wes Streeting, who notes that Conference is “disproportionately important to opposition parties” as “a precious few days where you get to dominate the airwaves on your terms, rather than reacting to what the government is doing”.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the extent to which Keir has to keep on telling his story about who he is, where he’s from, what makes him tick,” says Streeting. “There will be, still, lots of people across the country who do not know about his background, the hurdles he’s overcome, and the journey that’s taken him from a relatively modest background to not only being director of public prosecutions, but now leader of the Labour Party… I think it’s really important that Keir takes some time to set out his own story, his own motivations and his own vision.”
Starmer’s appearances on Desert Island Discs and Piers Morgan’s Life Stories are widely seen as high points of his leadership to date. Some say he seems more at ease discussing his personal background than responding to the top political item of the day, although one adviser reveals the leader was initially reluctant to talk about his family and only saw the value of doing so after his BBC Radio 4 interview as a “castaway” with Lauren Laverne.
Rather than a blend of Starmer’s backstory and vision, though, the Labour left want to see policy. “By the end of the conference, the public needs to be clear, very clear, what the Labour Party stands for. I don’t think the public at large [is] particularly clear on that at the moment,” says Richard Burgon, secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group. “It’s not going to be good enough, especially in the time of multiple crises, to be saying ‘you’ll hear about it in detail by the next general election’.”
The left-wing MP easily reels off a list of policies he believes Starmer should announce: a 15 per cent pay rise for NHS staff, a wealth tax, a Green New Deal, a national care service, a minimum wage of £15 per hour, millions of new council homes.
He compares Labour’s platform to that of centrist President Biden in the US, who is unveiling “the end of trickle-down economics” and a “massive” public investment programme: “That’s the very least that Labour should be arguing for. I don’t think we’re in a period whereby the old ways of doing things from previous decades, ie, saying as little as possible until a general election, is enough.”
This approach is far from what a Starmer-backing MP like Angela Eagle has in mind. “We all love to have the A-Z of policy. Everything from, what is the Labour policy on aardvarks, through to what is Labour policy on zoos, and everything in between,” she remarks drily. “I’m as interested as every other Labour member in the minutiae of policy,” she says, but adds that “voters in general aren’t interested in being in the weeds like that”.
Eagle suggests Labour must illustrate “a very trenchant criticism of the incompetence of this government”, exposing how “they’re incompetent, they’re lazy” with a few examples. An acronym – “ABC” – could be used. A is for Afghanistan: “they had 18 months to plan for it and they did nothing except go on holiday at the crucial time”. B is for Brexit, and “the way that’s coming home to roost”. Her C is for Covid, and the many government failures during the pandemic. “You could do worse than use that kind of ABC mantra to explain what sort of government we’ve got, and why it needs to be brought to account and got rid of,” says the long-serving Labour MP.
According to Harrop, the “deliberate packaging of policy to make it sound as radical and exciting to the movement as it possibly could” seen during the Corbyn era risks making “middle England feel anxious”. He says, “I think with Keir you’ll see things presented in a very unideological way about practical common sense that will be good for you and your family, even though the policy ideas [such as the labour market reforms announced over the summer] are actually very similar.”
For Eagle, the test of Conference for Starmer is whether “the average person in the street” can associate him “with something they agree with”. Setting the bar high, Burgon says by the end “it needs to be clear that Labour can win the next general election”.
The Fabians’ Harrop suggests: “It’s got to be about getting into people’s living rooms.” This involves “one or two really eye-catching policy announcements, rather than a slew of policy” and for members to “disagree politely and reasonably on their substantive differences, rather than it all feeling like a psychodrama about Jeremy Corbyn versus Keir Starmer’s approach to leadership”.
This is perhaps most in tune with the wishes of the leadership, but may also be the most difficult of all the challenges set for the Labour leader. Different parts of the Party have distinct views on what Starmer must do to have a successful conference. Left activists are most interested in his unity pledge from last year, whereas most MPs are eager for his speech to send a clear message. They are nervous about a 2023, or even 2022, general election. To reassure his party and define his leadership, Starmer cannot waste this rare opportunity to speak unfiltered to the public.
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