Keir Starmer seems destined never to be able to have a normal party conference. Since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn his three conferences have been either cancelled or subdued, the first two given the impact of the pandemic, and this year’s will come only a week after Her Late Majesty’s State Funeral. However, unlike his previous two party conferences, Starmer enters conference season in the strongest position yet of his leadership – and arguably the strongest for a Labour leader since the party left Government over a decade ago.
Cast your mind back a year and the consensus view of the Labour leader was not particularly glowing. Following two by-elections, one where Labour got trounced (Hartlepool) and one where the party barely held on (Batley and Spen), the general view was that Labour was heading for another term in opposition. A year later, and Starmer is riding high in the polls, sometimes leading by as much as 10 points, with the Tories having just completed a fractious summer-long leadership election which may well have damaged the new leader, Liz Truss, before she’s even had a chance to properly get going.
In addition, symbolic victories – be they electoral in the ‘Red Wall’ seat of Wakefield, or policy triumphs on the windfall tax on energy companies – have given the party newfound optimism that it is finally cutting through, both in Westminster and in the country.
However, all is not totally rosy for Starmer. In Liverpool he will come under renewed pressure by his activists and the Westminster commentariat to set out his own ‘vision’ for the country at a time when voters are starting to look at the party for ideas. Having so far made his name mostly in opposition to the now-vanquished Boris Johnson, the Labour leader will need a positive prospectus of his own to showcase in his keynote speech on Tuesday, in order to present Labour not just as the Opposition, but as a Government-in-Waiting.
Starmer will also face renewed criticism from Labour’s affiliated unions on the way he has handled the summer of strike action. While it may have been easy for him to dismiss requests for ‘solidarity’ by non-affiliated unions such as the RMT, the request will carry more weight from nurses and teachers demanding above-inflation pay rises, given both are represented by UNISON, Starmer’s main union backers. How he handles these questions will set the tone for this year’s gathering.
The other big challenge for the Labour leader will be how he starts defining the Truss government. Having lost his favourite foil in Boris Johnson – brought down in no small part by how Starmer himself repeatedly needled him in the Commons – the Labour leader will need to quickly define himself against the new Prime Minister, and ensure that any honeymoon is short-lived.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Labour Conference without some drama around motions from Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and union delegates. Having survived a vote on proportional representation last year thanks to the unions, Starmer may see himself defeated on the conference floor on a similar motion to support a change in the voting system should the big unions – Unite, GMB, and UNISON – decide to abstain on this year’s vote. The move would be a blow to the Labour leader not simply on policy grounds – which he opposes – but as they would open up a further rift between his leadership and the wider labour movement.
This year’s conference may be the penultimate before a General Election. Time is running out for Keir Starmer to make a mark – he needs to use next week’s gathering in Liverpool to maximum effect if he is to take over the keys to No 10 from Liz Truss.
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