Labour Party Conference 2021 - Keir Starmer’s Clause IV?

By Ben Coltham

When writing these things, it is always too easy to lapse into hyperbole. Indeed, when considering Keir Starmer’s prospects ahead of the recently ended Labour Party Conference, it was easy to see a make-or-break conference given the Party’s poor showing in the polls and the long-running internal fights to wrestle back control of the Party. But, the general theme of understatement that seems to follow Starmer belies the real obstacles he faced and overcame this week. As Labour continues along its path back to electability, only time will tell whether Starmer’s efforts to bring the Party back toward the centre will be rewarded by the public.

Though his time in Brighton was not without some dramatics, including the resignation of the Shadow Employment Secretary Andy McDonald, the Deputy Leader Angela Rayner reportedly referring to Conservative ministers as “scum” and some heckling during his speech, Starmer has emerged from Conference in a stronger position. Critics will be disheartened that the strengthening is partially due to those dramatics being put down effectively by Starmer. McDonald’s walkout over the Party failing to back a £15 minimum wage – higher than the UK’s current median wage – has helped to drive home the party’s messages of competency and realism, in an attempt to dispel the spectre of John McDonnell’s economic policy. Similarly, the heckling during the very sections of the speech in which he talked about his personal values and experiences proved that Labour has managed to push some of the more ‘extreme’ voices to the fringes – quite literally in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who spoke to supporters in a nearby night club. Starmer’s delivery of prepared put-downs in his speech while his supporters drowned out the dissenting voices made it all the sweeter.

Of course, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. Rayner’s comments were unhelpful and though based on some of the Prime Minister’s previous comments, they will undoubtedly be taken as an attack on Conservative voters. While Starmer does his best to make the Party electable, it must still appeal to non-traditional Labour voters. That includes, astonishingly or disappointingly (depending on your view, dear reader), those who have voted Conservative in the past. Or Lib Dem. Still, Starmer had an answer. In an effort to show up the Prime Minister’s perceived failings while boxing off Rayner’s comments, he told Conference, “I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show. I think he’s a trickster who has performed his one trick.” Not a bad line, as they come.

Yet, with the focus on perception and politics, it’s important not to forget about the policy. And there was plenty of it – though sadly for fans of Jeremy Corbyn, D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ wouldn’t have been out of place this week. Blair is back. Well, not quite, but Peter Mandelson was certainly in attendance, as were the themes of health, with big commitments on mental health treatment and preventative public health, law and order, education and even a friendlier face to business. Starmer’s speech received a warm welcome from the CBI, while Shevaun Haviland, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said, “Businesses will welcome the focus on digital skills, investment in R&D and the need to make Brexit work.” Though more concrete proposals will be needed, the aim was to communicate to voters that Labour had moved back towards the centre and was serious about appealing to – and rectifying – their concerns. As an initial step, Starmer et al will consider that box ticked.

To top it off, combining with the reforms secured at Conference that need a greater input from MPs in choosing the next leader, ostensibly guarding against another Corbyn-type figure gaining control of the Party, while allowing MPs to focus more externally instead of internal fights, Labour Party Conference 2021 might draw a passing resemblance to Tony Blair’s 1995 redrafting of Clause IV. Blair’s fight over the long-established Clause IV fundamentally recast the Party’s image after previous failed attempts, allowing New Labour to step into the world. Yet, Starmer’s fight in 2021 is no less consequential, coming as it does after other failed attempts by the centre to retake control. The Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy summed it up well, saying that Labour has been all too focused on itself as of late, more concerned about protest than power. Now, she said, Labour is a “party which is serious about winning.” Time will tell, but this week in Brighton was a good start.

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