Sir Keir’s big speech

By Mike Phipps

It was the climax of the Conference. After gripping discussions on policy and keynote addresses from the Shadow Cabinet, the Party leader made an electrifying speech preparing us for the next general election.

Oh no, wait a minute – that was two years ago. This time around, it was all a bit different. In 2021, the Party was determinedly facing inwards. On the first day, General Secretary David Evans was staring at an unprecedented humiliation of not being approved in his job by Conference delegates, following his heavy-handed use of suspensions and ‘auto-exclusions’ of Party members. In the event, he got through with just 57% of delegates’ votes, with 43% voting against. 

Other internal business dominated proceedings. The leadership tabled – and won – a series of more incremental changes that would have the outcome of narrowing the field in future leadership contests. These included increasing the number of MPs needed to nominate a leadership candidate from 10% to 20% of the parliamentary party, scrapping the category of registered supporters, which allows ordinary Labour voters to have a say in who becomes leader and introducing an earlier freeze date, by which members must have joined the Party before they are eligible to vote. If this was to prevent another candidate like Jeremy Corbyn ever being eligible to run for the leadership again, it also signalled the right wing’s intention to prepare for a post-Starmer scenario.

Still, the left was also able to celebrate some gains on the policy front. Labour for a Green New Deal saw its motion on the climate crisis passed by a landslide, despite having earlier been ruled ‘out of order’ by the conference arrangements committee on the recommendation of party staff and then reinstated on appeal, after an outcry.

The Conference also voted to bring energy companies into public ownership. Then the following morning Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves was asked on BBC Breakfast whether Labour would nationalise energy companies and said no. One delegate observed: “Conference delegates might wonder why we bother submitting, compositing and debating these motions if they’re to be contradicted on national television less than 24 hours after they are passed.”

Just as Conference appeared to be settling down and facing outwards, a bombshell dropped on Monday evening. Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections Andy McDonald announced he was resigning from Keir Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet, saying he could no longer “fight for the working people of this country” while a member. He claimed Starmer’s office “instructed me to go into a meeting to argue against a national minimum wage of £15 an hour and against statutory sick pay at the living wage,” a positon the leader himself had previously supported. McDonald had been one of the few remaining left wingers in the Shadow Cabinet, who had done considerable work on developing a detailed set of policies on workplace rights.

There was more bad news ahead. The following day, the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU) announced that it was disaffiliating from Labour, accusing Keir Starmer of waging a “factional internal war” instead of focusing on “real change”.

So when Keir Starmer walked up to the rostrum for his big set-piece speech on the final day of Conference, it really was ‘make or break’. Could he bring the Party together and set out an election-winning vision for the year ahead?

Expectations were low. Before Conference, Starmer had published a 12,000 word essay outlining his ideas. Labour Hub’s critique of this was trenchant. The consensus seems to have been that Starmer’s magnum opus was laden with unoriginal banalities. James Butler, for example, concluded: “Its reliance on vague cliché dismayed even the vacuous ranks of the commentariat usually first to applaud him. There is little in it that Theresa May or David Cameron could have disagreed with.”

Would Starmer’s big speech fare any better? For all the enthusiasm of his supporters, the answer must be no. Starmer had said in advance that winning was more important than Party unity – as if the two were counterposed – and there were certainly no concessions to unity here.  In the first few pages, there were swipes at his predecessor, when he said, “We will never under my leadership go into an election without a serious plan for government.”

But as Jon Trickett MP subsequently pointed out: “I sat through the whole meeting that agreed our 2019 manifesto. Just metres from Sir Keir Starmer. Every single policy was agreed unanimously. Just to spell it out, including by Sir Keir. I recall not a single peep of dissent from that direction.”

Turning to policy, there was lot on personal security. “Crime is a Labour issue,” thundered Sir Keir.  He promised tougher sentences for rapists, stalkers and domestic abusers.

Warming to the theme, he announced, “We are the patriots… Labour is the party of NATO… We will do right by the great Britons who serve in our armed forces.” If this was meant to reassure lost voters in the so-called ‘red wall’, Starmer may be barking up the wrong tree. There are many more voters who did not vote at all in 2019, compared to 2017, who need to be inspired, as former Corbyn adviser Andrew Fisher has argued.

Some pundits have pointed to Starmer’s conversion to ‘Blue labour’ thinking, where these nods to social conservatism are balanced by economic radicalism. But there was nothing radical here. The speech’s finale was a (necessarily) short roll-call of the achievements of the Blair governments. It was all rather tired.

Owen Jones called it a bout right when he said: ““The only thing his team passionately believe in is defining themselves against the left. They just don’t have positive alternative to the Tories or compelling vision for the country.”

But it’s not just Starmer’s long term opponents who feel disheartened. Many of Starmer’s former supporters feel profoundly let down. Laura Parker, whose face was on Starmer’s leadership leaflets, told the Guardian: “There are 40% of the membership who voted for Jeremy twice and then for Keir. They were united around his pledges.

“Now any efforts towards party unity are absolutely blown up, it is dead in the water. I can’t believe there’s a single one of that 40% who doesn’t feel like me, totally totally despairing and actually quite angry. Why would you do this to your own supporters?”

Simon Fletcher, who worked for Ed Milband and Jeremy Corbyn, also wrote in Monday’s Guardian: “I went to work for Keir Starmer because he promised to unite the party. I regret it now.” It’s not just the uncompromising hard left that is unhappy with Starmer.

True, as Aditya Chakrabortty opined the day after Starmer’s speech, “delegates dutifully stood and applauded every couple of minutes, alternating with hecklers. It was a kind of pantomime, in which Starmer put in a decent performance in front of an audience visibly wishing him well. It should garner him kindly headlines, but it will be long forgotten by the time Boris Johnson opens his mouth next week in Manchester.”

And that’s not just down to the lacklustre content and plodding delivery. The right wing’s speedy push for changes to the leadership election rules show it is already eyeing up the prospects of an alternative leader, more in their own image, without the baggage of the betrayed pledges that Starmer originally ran on. All they need is a candidate, the search for whom has caused a lot of trouble in the last few years. Liz Kendall? Yvette Cooper? Jess Phillips? Inspiring they are not.

Starmer’s ultimate weakness is that he has lost the support of the left and the right don’t really want him. He has no real independent power base and most of his supporters don’t think he can win the next general election. That’s quite a indictment.

“Make or break?” one former frontbencher told the Guardian. “He’s already broken.”

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Keir Starmer. Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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