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By the next general election it will be more than 25 years since Britain’s Labour party last gained power from opposition. It has won just three of the last 11 elections, all under one leader. Its most recent defeat was its worst since 1935. For one of the two great parties of state, that is a dismal record.
If the primary purpose of a political party is to win power, then Britain’s main opposition has some searching questions to ask itself as it gathers this week for its annual conference. The good news is that its leader Keir Starmer is asking them. The bad news is he has little time to find the answers.
Starmer won office 18 months ago, taking over a shattered party just as the nation was heading into the pandemic. The mere fact of his victory was a step forward after the disastrous, hard-left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Internally, he has made progress, marginalising the hard left, gaining control of the party machinery and addressing the cancerous legacy of anti-Semitism.
He has been less effective in offering a vision. The result is that even in the government’s lowest moments, Starmer’s own ratings have not risen. He has been upstaged in his criticism of prime minister Boris Johnson’s management of the pandemic by the sharper interventions of the former Labour premier, Tony Blair. The lack of electoral progress, moreover, means his position is far from unassailable.
At this conference, then, Starmer has two jobs. The first is to seal his control of the party. The second is to show the public that his values and priorities are theirs rather than those of his activists.
To demonstrate the first, Starmer has sprung a series of proposed rule changes on his members, designed to weaken the grip of the left and prevent hardliners regaining control of the party. In a sign of tactical ineptitude he has already been forced to back down on one. But he has secured his other more important changes. This was crucial. Having picked this fight, Starmer had to win.
More important is the message to voters. Ahead of conference Starmer has published a lengthy pamphlet setting out his values. It is broad rather than detailed, but it shows him moving back to the centre-ground and pitching directly for the disillusioned Tory voters Labour must reclaim. Starmer pledges to tackle the injustices in society exposed by the pandemic, be it via more protection for workers or a commitment to smaller class sizes in schools. He is warmer towards business than his predecessors and clearer on the need for strong public finances.
The big notion is the clunkily-titled “contribution society” in which all are expected to play their part. The tome is directionally sound though few leaders do not claim to be on the side of “hard working families”. But its breadth also amounts to a lack of definition. Dividing lines are the clues voters seek when judging a party’s values. Starmer will need to sharpen these lines and underpin them with clear choices. That is not about developing snappy slogans which fit on a pledge card. It is about consistently showing ordinary voters, by his actions and the sides he picks, that his priorities are theirs. He would also do well to heed Blair’s advice and show his “intolerance of intolerance” in the cancel culture which afflicts both society and his own party.
The sight of petrol queues and shortages demonstrate the potential vulnerabilities of Johnson’s government and the need and scope for a confident, competent opposition. Starmer’s allies say this conference is about reintroducing him to the country. He does not have long to turn that handshake into a lasting relationship.
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