Next week’s conference in Brighton will be the first outing for Keir Starmer as Labour leader in front of a big live audience. Behind in the polls, faced with a dominant Boris Johnson and beset with sniping from his left flank his conference speech, due on Tuesday, is being talked up in some quarters as being crucial for the future of his leadership.
Starmer has a difficult set of tasks in front of him. First off, he needs to define what Labour stands for against a Conservative Party which is perceived as having shifted radically to the left in terms of its willingness, at least, to spend public money and has prioritised the green agenda. Secondly, he needs to reassure the Corbynite left while building a coalition that will include former Tory voters if he is to have any hope of winning a General Election. Thirdly, he needs to avoid internecine squabbling over internal party management along with deeper rifts around anti-semitism and trans rights making Labour look divided and out of touch with its voters in the Red Wall.
Although the Prime Minister is still benefiting from a ‘vaccine bounce’ in the polls and the public continue to give him the benefit of the doubt for doing his best in the middle of a global pandemic Starmer should have a tailwind behind him. “Events, dear boy”, as Harold McMillan might say, are happening. Not since the 70s has inflation, tax rises and energy shortages dominated the headlines and it is becoming harder to ignore the idea that the Brexit deal is having real implications for sections of the economy. The gap in the polls appears to be narrowing following the increase in National Insurance contributions and there is a real concern about energy price rises. Furlough also comes to an end this month and it’s likely that, despite the shortage of workers in key areas like leisure, transport and food production, many will find they don’t have jobs to return to and be forced into the benefits system in the short term and then onto lower-paid roles.
These are exactly the sort of bread and butter issues that Labour will want the conference to focus on. Labour’s new Director of Strategy, Deborah Matheson, co-founder of BritainThinks, who has researched extensively on electoral patterns in the Red Wall, has been brought in specifically to shape this and develop a coherent story that positions Starmer as a serious PM in waiting.
Labour strategists are dusting down that old Gordon Brown favourite – the dividing line. You can see this starting to take shape in the 10-point plan for a Contribution Society set out in his pamphlet for the Fabian Society. Targeted at his internal audiences to counter critics who say they don’t know what he stands for and externally as a set of moral, political and economic dividing lines with which to measure the Government against. These will be developed in his conference speech and expect Labour’s record of achievement in Government to be resuscitated along with something eye-catching on public spending now that the Tories have changed the terms of the debate on state intervention and can no longer play the spendthrift Labour card.
The fly in the ointment for Starmer will be, of course, Labour Party members and the affiliated trade unions. There are two important bits of party business being voted on – a return to an electoral college to decide the party leader and reform of the trigger system to deselect sitting MPs. Party managers want to dismantle the changes made by Ed Miliband in 2014 that allowed Jeremy Corbyn to get elected by a one member one vote system. The unions, who hold the balance on this, are already saying the conference is “likely to be messy” despite the retirement of Len McCluskey and new leadership in its three largest affiliates – Unite, Unison and GMB. Starmer’s relationship with the left hasn’t recovered from his decision to suspend the former leader for his remarks on the findings of the EHRC on anti-Semitism and there is an organised campaign to oppose the changes, led by the likes of John McDonnell.
The danger for Starmer is that these disputes spill out onto the conference floor and become the story. His primary task at the conference will be to speak over the shoulders of delegates and into the living rooms of voters, convince them he is a competent alternative to Boris Johnson, who they will say has lost control of events, and who can put an end to instability as we head into an uncertain winter. He won’t be able to do that if he’s leading a divided party.
The H+K team will be at the Labour and Conservative conferences. We’ll be analysing the policy developments and key moments at the fringe for our clients; watch out for our regular updates.