Keir Starmer faces trouble ahead, as Labour returns to the tradition of internal fighting

John Rentoul
·4-min read
<p>Keir Starmer delivers his annual conference speech to a remote and subdued party</p> (EPA)

Keir Starmer delivers his annual conference speech to a remote and subdued party

(EPA)

Keir Starmer had a successful party conference season this year because there was no party conference. He has not given a speech to a live audience of more than a handful of people since he became leader, and those handfuls have usually been camera operators and party officials.

Coronavirus restrictions have had a remarkable effect of suppressing party activism for the whole time since Starmer gave his acceptance speech on his election as leader in April, on video in his front room. “Momentum has been unable to organise, plot and gossip,” I was told by one gleeful organiser for the other wing of the party – the wing that “looks for converts rather than traitors” as one of them so eloquently put it.

The corollary of that quiescence, however, is that the vaccines will release the Labour Party to do what it does best: fight a civil war in public. This year, Starmer has enjoyed almost total dominance over his party, while the faction that had seemed to have the institutions of the party in its grip is stunningly powerless. But next year, it will fight back. Local parties will meet in person again. It is hard to generate outrage and indignation on Zoom, but in a hall or a face-to-face conversation the movement to demand Jeremy Corbyn’s reinstatement as a Labour MP will grow.

Already, many local parties have defied instructions from HQ not to debate disciplinary matters and have passed Zoom resolutions “against the witch hunt”. This will all come to a crisis at next year’s party conference. If this is a physical conference attended by delegates in person, it will be the point at which Corbyn’s supporters will be at their maximum strength. They have lost control of the leadership and the National Executive Committee, but the party’s sovereign body is its annual conference, where the votes are divided equally between delegates from the trade unions and those representing local parties.

Both halves of the conference will be divided: the unions probably in Starmer’s favour (with the biggest, Unite, against); the constituency parties probably more evenly balanced. A Survation poll of party members for Labour List last week found that they were divided almost equally on the question of restoring the party whip to Corbyn: 48 per cent in favour, 46 per cent against and 6 per cent didn’t know.

The significance of that, I think, is that this struggle is winnable for Starmer. It helps that Corbyn has put himself in the wrong. His fiercer supporters are not ready to acknowledge this yet, but what is extraordinary is that a bunch of people who accused the Blairites in the party of “weaponising” antisemitism have succeeded in weaponising it against themselves.

All Starmer has done is to insist on zero tolerance of antisemitism, and to accept in advance all of the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on Labour’s handling of the issue under Corbyn. There may be reasonable objections to both those things, but Corbyn and his supporters are not in a position to make them, because they would look as if they were trying to make excuses for themselves.

But – and this is the extraordinary bit – neither are they prepared to do what has to be done to avoid the appearance of trying to excuse antisemitism. Thus Rebecca Long-Bailey refused to delete a tweet endorsing what seemed an antisemitic comment by Maxine Peake, the actress, even after Peake herself accepted it was “inaccurate”. Long-Bailey’s sacking from the shadow cabinet was not part of a purge of Corbynites, therefore; she had purged herself.

Corbyn’s offence was similar. When the EHRC report – which found that Labour under his leadership had broken the law by harassing Jewish members – was published, he responded by saying the problem of antisemitism had been “dramatically overstated” by his enemies. That he could not see how bad that looked to someone who was not already wholly signed up to him personally should have been a good enough reason for keeping him out of the parliamentary party.

Unless he apologises convincingly, which I think he is too proud and stubborn to do, he will be kept out and his supporters will be fighting on weak ground. But they will fight, and it won’t be pretty, especially when there are actual meetings and rallies to be held.

Before all this, though, Starmer has to fight on the opposite front, against his natural supporters – including his own shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds. As the leader of Labour’s battle against Brexit for most of the time since the referendum, he now wants his MPs to vote with the government in favour of the EU trade deal that might be negotiated any day now.

Half the shadow cabinet would rather not, thinking that Labour ought to be free to criticise the deal when the lorries start queuing to get into Kent. Starmer, on the other hand, thinks it is more important to tell the voters Labour lost last year that the party accepts Brexit and wants to move on.

This year, Starmer was lord of all he surveyed in the locked-down Labour Party. Next year could be very different.