It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. Every September the Labour Party goes into Conference Season in a state of flux – be it in the aftermath of a General Election defeat (four and counting since 2010), a Leadership election (also four in ten years), or in the midst of infighting. Case in point: the different factions are also at war on changes to the leadership election rules and the reselection of MPs. This year’s gathering looks set to produce more fireworks.
Firstly, it is Sir Keir Starmer’s first ‘proper’ Conference – having delivered his speech last year virtually due to the pandemic. The Labour Leader has had few opportunities in his 18 months in charge to deliver speeches in front of audiences, so that in itself will be a challenge but also an opportunity he will relish. He has come under a lot of pressure since the turn of the year. The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines resulted in a steady rise in the Government’s poll ratings, and coincided not only with the Labour Party falling behind, but Starmer’s own ratings suffering as well. The Party also lost the Hartlepool by-election, hundreds of local council seats across England, and barely hung on to Batley and Spen in July. Little of Labour’s successes in Wales and in Mayoral contests in England seemed to be attributed to Starmer.
This has prompted questions about Starmer’s leadership and has led to not-so-subtle hints by two-time leadership hopeful and now Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham that he would quite like another run at the top job. A botched reshuffle after the Local Election results has also damaged Starmer’s reputation among MPs, who have started to question whether he is the man to lead Labour back into office.
With this backdrop, this year’s Conference will be a defining moment in Keir Starmer’s leadership. With many in the Party and across the country demanding to know what he stands for, the Labour Leader will feel the pressure to deliver the speech of his political life. It is a tricky balancing act – having to still introduce himself to the public, who don’t really know his backstory, while also setting out his ‘vision’ for the country. He has reportedly brought in former Tony Blair speechwriter Philip Collins – author of the then-Prime Minister’s last Conference speech which is widely regarded as one of the best in recent times – to help him with his own address.
He has also shaken up his backroom team, which was seen by many as underperforming, especially in light of the Hartlepool by-election defeat. Gone are his Director of Communications, his Political Director and his longstanding political advisor, who have been replaced by three figures from the New Labour era – Deborah Mattinson comes in as Director of Strategy, Matthew Doyle as Director of Communications, and Sam White comes in as Chief of Staff replacing Morgan McSweeney who has been put in charge of election planning. The hope is that more experienced hands will be able to guide the relative newcomer to politics that is the Labour Leader through the choppy waters of the autumn and the start of next year, when we might only be a year away from a possible general election.
This year’s Conference is being dubbed ‘make or break’ for Keir Starmer’s Leadership. This may be a slight exaggeration as Starmer is pretty untouchable at the top of the Party and a leadership challenge is unlikely any time soon. The process to remove a Labour leader is not straightforward, and while the left of the Party might be starting to consider a challenge, there is no obvious candidate that could get on the ballot at this stage. What is true is that unless this year’s Conference reverses the negative polling trend and injects the Party with some much-needed fresh energy then Starmer will be closer to joining the ranks of Labour Leaders who have failed to win a general election.
Photo: Keir Starmer speaks at event hosted at Cicero/amo by Labour in the City in 2018
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