Labour Party Conference 2021: Submarine Starmer finally surfaces

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Image Description: Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looking out into the distance

‘Opposition: in politics is the party that restrains the government from violent insanity, undercutting its hamstring’ wrote American writer, journalist, and veteran Ambrose Bierce. Sir Keir Starmer’s opposition does not fall under this definition. Starmer’s Labour Party understandably supported the government in the national crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. But throughout his leadership, Starmer has struggled to find his voice; he’s faced accusations of being ‘Captain Hindsight‘, failing to both effectively oppose the government and present inspiring policies. As Labour gathered last week for its annual conference, Britain struggled with a growing economic and social crisis. Food shortages bedevil British supermarkets, 80% of British petrol pumps are out of fuel, the Tories are preparing a cut to Universal Credit that could push hundreds of thousands of people into poverty – and where is the opposition? Once again, Britain is in the midst of a self-inflicted economic disaster, and once again the Labour Party is arguing with itself.

‘As Labour gathered last week for its annual conference, Britain struggled with a growing economic and social crisis.’ 

This conference was intended to be Starmer’s attempt at setting the record straight: presenting himself as a competent leader leading a united party that could finally return to government. But this aspiration soon appeared to be a mirage. Before the conference even began Starmer almost botched the centre piece of the event: his change to Labour leadership rules. Starmer’s heavy-handedness left all the unions frosty, with even moderate unions like USDAW and Community failing to immediately grant Starmer support. By leaving the unions in the dark over his plans, Starmer was accused of bouncing them into supporting the change without prior consultation. Thankfully for the Labour leader, trade union Unison changed at the last minute providing him a narrow victory of 53% in his favour. Starmer luckily swerved from an embarrassing defeat, but as one delegate stated, the leadership change was a ‘disaster… baking in everything that is going wrong with the party’.

The debacle over the leadership rules set the tone for the following week. Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner caused controversy by labelling Conservative ministers an ‘absolute pile… of banana republic Etonian… piece of scum’. Even members of the Shadow Cabinet believed that Rayner had gone too far, with Shadow Scotland Secretary Ian Murray calling for the deputy leader to ‘lead by example’ and apologise for her remarks. Labour have lost the last four consecutive elections by greater and greater margins. The 2019 election result was Labour’s worst since 1935. Rayner may consider Johnson ‘scum’, but evidently many former Labour voters didn’t. This sort of de-humanising language is not only electorally self-destructive but beyond toxic for our political atmosphere.

‘Rayner may consider Johnson ‘scum’, but evidently many former Labour voters didn’t…’

Starmer’s speech – or lecture, really – was the highlight of the conference, with his opening gambit being the return of former MP Dame Louise Ellman into the party after her resignation in 2019 following her belief that former leader Jeremy Corbyn had allowed antisemitism to become ‘mainstream in the Labour Party’. The confirmation of an independent complaints process for racism marks a definitive break from Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and hopefully an end to the anti-semitism rows that have blighted the country and party for the last few years.

Interestingly, Starmer is the the first Labour leader in a long time to directly praise the New Labour legacy. Frequently in his speech, Starmer appeared to be putting on a Blair tribute act. ‘Education is so important I am tempted to say it three times’, Starmer stated mirroring Tony Blair’s famous ‘Education, education, education’ motto from 1997. Starmer went even further, harkening to Blair’s ‘Tough on Crime, Tough on the causes of crime’ policy by stating that under his leadership ‘the fight against crime will always be a Labour issue’. Starmer’s references to the New Labour government may seem sad, but a Poor Man’s Tony Blair will always be preferable to the Poundland Winston Churchill we have in our Prime Minister.

Starmer may have delivered the most important speech yet as Labour leader with relative success, but one good speech will not change the political weather. Despite Starmer proudly stating he would always put ‘country before factionalism’, this conference has hardly proven the case – with debate, division, and internal party conflict defining the week. One Labour MP stated that the party was in an ‘alternate universe’, not even ‘part of the conversation’ regarding the fuel crisis. Polling remain firmly in the Conservative’s favour, with the Tories retaining a firm three or four point lead over Labour.

The Tories should be suffering from this economic disaster of their own making, and yet Labour’s infighting overshadows this. Eleven years of disastrous Tory rule and the end is not at all in sight – Starmer may believe he is the man to lead Labour back into government but the country is clearly unconvinced.

 

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