It’s a make-or-break weekend for the Labour party as they descend upon Brighton for their first in-person conference since Starmer won the leadership. The success of this meeting is pivotal if the Labour leader wants to redefine the party’s direction post-pandemic and rid himself of his ‘captain hindsight’ reputation.
In advance of the conference, Starmer has released a 12,000-word essay outlining his vision for the future of the Labour party. The themes covered in the essay will likely play a major role in the speeches he gives over the coming week, setting out his intentions for the rest of his time as leader of the opposition.
It will be more important than ever this weekend for Starmer to present Labour as a united front. Historically he has faced heavy criticism for dividing up the party. However, if this was his aim for the weekend – his recent bid to change how future Labour leaders and MPs are elected has done quite the opposite. The reforms proposed return to an ‘electoral college’ style of voting – shifting power from members to MPs. Distain was expressed by key senior figures in the party such as London mayor Sadiq Khan and the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar. Starmer was forced to U-turn on these major party reform plans amidst an internal row within his Shadow Cabinet. As the Tory government runs rampant, Labour was presented with an unmatched opportunity to look efficacious, instead Starmer’s attempt to fiddle with the rulebook created a controversy that now threatens to overshadow the conference.
So, what messages can we expect from the Labour party leader? Well, if his vision statement is anything to go by then it seems like a lot of bark and not a lot of bite.
If there’s one thing critics of The Road Ahead have agreed on – it is that Boris Johnson would claim to share virtually every single one of Starmer’s ambitions and values… as would almost all leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties since Margaret Thatcher: ‘Demanding better jobs whilst attacking the “red tape” has been a staple of the centre ground for almost 30 years,’ says political economist William Davies. The essay-like piece goes into great length about understanding the issues facing 21st century Britain and his hopes for the country. However, Starmer fails to address once what he plans to do about these aspirations. In the 12,000 words, there are no next steps, no clear policy direction and though the speech is peppered with promising phrases such as “security” and “opportunity” these words fall flat without a substantiative plan of action to back his ambitions up. We see this time and time again, he urges Labour to be more future-orientated, less fixated on the past. This again is all a good idea in theory but completely unoriginal… and rather futile.
One thing his pamphlet certainly does represent is an official departure from the Corbyn era, much of the essay focuses around sending Labour on a decisive course towards the centre-ground. He writes that “the role of government is to be a partner to private enterprise not to stifle it”, marking a shift away from Labours radical spending promises such as the large-scale nationalisation of Royal Mail, water, and even broadband providers. Alarmingly for those on the far left, some of the language used mimics that of the right. Starmer pledges fiscal responsibility and repairing public finances. This inevitably has disappointed those who were expecting him to make a Joe Biden-esque offer on spending and the economy to stimulate the job market, however, it does bode well for those supporters who felt somewhat disconnected from the party during the Corbyn era.
Though The Road Ahead has faced extensive criticism from MPs, supporters, and political journalists alike. Ultimately, if Starmer wants to establish himself as a secure leader (and a viable challenger in the next election), the success of this conference and the message he delivers in his speeches is all-important.
What can we expect from his speech this weekend?
Political journalist Jessica Elgot predicts a strong focus on job security, dignity at work, and making Labour the party of the working people. Starmer will likely talk about his father’s life, working in a factory from 8-5 to provide for himself and his family whilst still being looked down upon by everyone around him. Further along in the speech, we should also expect Starmer to address some of the promises he made during his initial campaign whether that be climate change, tuition fees or joblessness.
Looking ahead the potential for an election in 2022 is moderate, and in 2023 it is incredibly high; therefore, it is all the more important that Starmer presents himself as a strong and viable candidate, capable of running the country with his party in support. The pandemic has revealed an appetite for social solidarity that unfortunately the current government are ideologically and administratively incapable of achieving. If Starmer can capitalise on his time in the spotlight this weekend – Labour may find themselves in a better position than they have been in since the start of the pandemic.