The Labour Party’s Annual Conference kicked off in Brighton on Saturday, and to say it has not shown the party in a good light might be the understatement of the year. Going into the conference, Sir Keir Starmer faced a number of challenges, and it looks like he will leave it saddled with a few more.
Starmer’s first challenge going into the conference was to walk back Ed Miliband’s previous reforms; replacing the one-member-one-vote system that put Jeremy Corbyn in the leader’s chair with an electoral college system. This would mean that party members accounted for a third of the votes in a leadership contest, with MPs and unions each getting another third of the votes. After these particular reforms were rejected, the NEC approved a watered-down set of reforms that still give MPs a bit more power than they currently have in leadership contests and stop new members and one-off fee payers from voting for leader. The rule changes also make it harder for local party members to deselect their MPs. These reforms were passed by a narrow vote of 53 to 46 per cent of Labour members on Sunday. This was an important challenge for Starmer, but in winning this fight, he has highlighted another major challenge.
Starmer’s second challenge was to unite his party to be ready to stand against the Tories in opposition and at the next election. The rule changes have only made the divisions worse, alienating the left of his party and boring the rest of the country, who really do not care what percentage of the vote MPs get in Labour leadership elections and are more concerned about what Labour can offer that the Conservatives do not.
Diane Abbott launched an attack on his proposed rule changes on Twitter, John McDonnell said the proposals risked ‘ripping the party apart’, after saying that Starmer’s recent essay, ‘The Road Ahead’ was ‘banality after banality’ (he’s not wrong), and unions blocked the original electoral college plan and criticised Starmer for not consulting them over the reforms. The reforms will stop the selection of another Jeremy Corbyn as leader, but at the cost of alienating the left of the party and the trade unions that support it.
In Keir Starmer’s ‘banal’ essay, in between hitting out at his nostalgic party and calling for central planning in all but name, he accuses the Tories of plunging ‘into the murky depths of the so-called ‘culture wars’’. This is a common tactic on the identitarian left – to launch culture war issues and then pretend it’s all a right-wing ploy whenever anyone resists.
Those ‘so-called culture wars’ have presented another major challenge to Starmer going into his party’s conference: the Rosie Duffield issue. Ms Duffield said that ‘only women have a cervix’, and rejected gender self-identification, and received hate, smears, and threats as a result. Ms Duffield chose not to attend her party’s conference because of these threats, and in the absence of condemnation of those threats by the Labour leadership, the Speaker waded in to say that every party member should be able to attend their conferences without fear of being harmed.
When offered the chance to defend Rosie Duffield on Andrew Marr’s show, Keir Starmer said that her comment that ‘only women have a cervix’ should not be said as “it is not right”. In choosing to throw Ms Duffield under the bus in the culture wars he claims have been manufactured by the Tories, Starmer risks alienating women who have legitimate concerns about the impact of gender self-ID on the provision of single-sex spaces.
These were simply the challenges that faced the Labour leader when the conference began. The conference itself has seen new problems come up. Andy Burnham, star du jour of the party, has taken a series of swipes at the party leadership, arguing that Labour risks losing the north completely if it does not take winning it seriously. Particularly, he questioned why the only metropolitan mayor with a standalone speech at the conference is Sadiq Khan. A London-centric Labour could easily lose the north to a Conservative party focused on levelling-up across the country.
To top it off, Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, called the Conservatives ‘homophobic’, ‘racist’, ‘misogynistic’, and ‘scum’ at a reception for Labour activists at the conference, and has since refused to apologise for her comments. The Deputy Leader of the opposition using language that paints the government not just as wrong or bad at governing, but as bigoted and horrible, is a big problem for the leader of her party. If Corbyn or McDonnell had said this, it would hardly be an issue, but Rayner is the Deputy Leader, and this just makes the party look bitter and nasty, and risks alienating the moderate voters who are questioning whether they might change their vote back to Labour in the next election.
Keir Starmer has had a couple of wins at the conference. The rule change over leadership elections and the deselection process was coupled with reform of the party’s complaints process, making it easier to tackle the anti-Semitism that has dogged the party in recent years. But he has also had some major losses. The party voted to nationalise the energy industry, despite Starmer ruling this out. After writing an essay saying government would work with business, the last thing Starmer needs is for the party to commit to a Labour government that will overrule businesses and put them under government control. The word “socialism” does not appear once in Starmer’s ‘The Road Ahead’ but seizing the entire energy industry is pretty socialist. Despite Starmer’s best efforts, Corbynism is clearly not dead, and the moderates who voted against Corbyn’s Labour at the last election will notice that.
Labour’s conference has shown that the party is in danger of losing the left, trade unions, the north, women, and moderates. In the 2019 election, 35 per cent of the women’s vote went to Labour, while only 31 per cent of the men’s vote did. The north, traditionally a Labour heartland, saw a number of seats switch to the Tories in the last election, and given the prevalence of Conservative seats in the south, and SNP dominance in Scotland, Labour really cannot afford to lose more of the north. On top of this, Labour losing trade unions and the left would leave Keir Starmer with much less support than his predecessor. It will be difficult to enact the change Starmer lays out in his essay if nobody votes for his party.
This series of messes and in-fighting might well be entertaining for those who do not support the Labour party, but it is a problem for the whole country. With the opposition party in such a mess, ‘washing (their) dirty linen in public’ as David Lammy says, the Conservative government has no fear.
Without an effective opposition, the government can do whatever it wants, and no matter how many times Angela Rayner calls them scum, they have no reason to worry about being punished electorally, because their major challenger is a disjointed shell of a party. An effective government depends on an effective opposition holding them to account and offering an alternative that people can vote for if they are unhappy with the current government. Labour, as they have shown this week, does not offer such an alternative.