Labour Leaders past, present and future in Brighton 2021
It was billed as a make-or-break moment for Keir Starmer, with anticipation running high for his first ‘live’ Labour Conference speech as Party Leader.
After 90 minutes – which included standing ovations for his tentative defence of Labour’s record in Government alongside a handful of well-rehearsed heckler putdowns – the Labour leader can breathe a sigh of relief after delivering his speech. The speech was a continuation of Starmer’s strategy of redirecting the party towards the centre ground.
Opinion polling immediately following Conference has not shown a bounce for Labour. Rather voters may have taken more heed of the headlines from Labour’s annual gathering prior to Starmer’s set piece moment.
Indeed, it was a rocky couple of days for Starmer ahead of his conference speech with Labour traditional infighting plus Shadow Cabinet resignations, interventions from past Labour leaders, and manoeuvring of future leadership hopefuls.
I got new rules…
Tensions were running even higher than usual as constituency party delegates began arriving in Brighton on Saturday morning, after the Leadership proposed last-minute rewrites to Labour’s internal rule book. Under the proposals, future leadership candidates would require nominations from 20% of the parliamentary party and the vote itself would return to using Labour traditional college system, rather than one-member, one-vote system in place since 2015. Critics cried that this was a blatant power-grab for the PLP (which it was) and an affront to internal party democracy (also a fair criticism). However, these activists overlooked the more strategic message behind this proposal: reversing the reforms that enabled the election of Jeremy Corbyn, signalling to the electorate that the Party should never again be led by someone who commands a devoted following within the Party but remains toxic in the wider country.
The ghosts of leadership past
Starmer’s breaks with the past continued after his aides criticised his leadership predecessor and close personal friend Ed Miliband for “freelancing” Labour’s renationalisation policy after the Shadow Business Secretary told Newsnight that Labour was considering calling for renationalisation of the Big Six energy suppliers in response to rocketing domestic energy bills.
In contrast, during an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Keir Starmer argued that a Labour government would not seek to nationalise the big six energy companies, despite a leadership campaign pledge to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water.”
Starmer’s line reflects the tone and themes of Shadow Chancellor Rachael Reeves. In her Monday speech, Reeves underlined the themes of fiscal competence and value-for-money, while also unveiling the Conference’s one blockbuster policy announcement of £28bn annual investment in a Green New Deal.
Starmer’s more measured response to the ongoing energy crisis, arriving only days after his pro-business pamphlet The Road Ahead, did not excite Labour activists but was carefully calibrated to reassure voters that Labour under his leadership would prioritise incremental reform over revolutionary change.
The Left behind
Meanwhile, without the Labour whip, Jeremy Corbyn visibly relished the opportunity to cause mischief for his former Brexit Secretary. Revelling in his Seven Nation Army comfort zone at no less than 6 Labour fringe events, Corbyn suggested that nothing short of Starmer recommitting to his own defeated 2019 general Election manifesto would satisfy him.
Arch-Corbyn-loyalist Andy McDonald raised eyebrows further with a suspiciously timed resignation from his role as Shadow Secretary for Employment Rights, claiming that he would no longer defend Labour’s employment policy, which he had himself written in the previous 18 months. McDonald wanted to see Labour commit to a £15 minimum wage; which is over 50% higher than where it is currently. Rumours abounded that former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had leaned on McDonald to quit in the midst of Conference.
One can argue that these interventions from the Labour Left provided the perfect backdrop for Starmer’s reimagining of the Party, highlighting his shift towards the more moderate centre ground. Time will let whether these interventions actually help Starmer in this way or merely serve as a drag on the whole Labour brand.
The second coming of Kinnock and Blair
While Starmer continued to position himself as “a serious man for serious times”, contrasting himself with the “trivial” Prime Minister, it remains to be seen whether his cautious approach, focused upon demonstrating competence and decency, can deliver the dramatic revival in Labour fortunes necessary to bring the Party back to power. While politics is always governed by events – which could see Boris Johnson’s Government brought low by a growing cost of living crisis, inflation striking ballooning public debt, or a simple coronavirus resurgence –the mood amongst Labour activists appears to largely continue to view Starmer as a Kinnock: a caretaker leader laying the foundations for future success. Perhaps that is not surprising given the swing that would be required to create Labour Government. However, there was no shortage of Labour politicians in Brighton with ambitions to succeed Starmer, filling Blair’s shoes.
Angela Raynor’s decision to repeat her accusation that Tories are “scum” was a calculated provocation designed to appeal to the Labour base. While this will no doubt help her chances in any future internal elections, burnishing her reputation as a straight-talker, this discourteous language may prove a liability to Raynor during a future leadership campaign when she may be challenged to explain how she aims to appeal to Conservative-swing voters she has now insulted.
However, the person obviously enjoying himself in Brighton was Andy Burnham. Buoyed by his success as Mayor of Greater Manchester and with his own independent powerbase, Burnham used a series media interviews and fringe appearances to present himself as Labour’s prince-across-the-sea. Looking relaxed in a shirt and jeans, Burnham spent three days wooing activists and MPs across the conference bars while outlining his alternative vision for levelling-up. While publicly supportive of Starmer’s Labour leadership, Burnham’s greatest barrier to a future Labour Leadership bid remains securing a Westminster seat. All eyes will be on whether Burnham does move to seek selection to a Westminster office after two terms as Mayor for Greater Manchester.
Overall, the Labour Leader will have been relieved to have finally been able to begin outlining his approach to Labour members, to moderate support. But a long road lies ahead to return the Labour Party as a credible electoral alternative, while events have a habit of overturning the best laid plans.