A national fuel crisis coinciding with Labour’s annual conference was good and bad news for Keir Starmer. The bad news was that most of the country was too busy worrying about petrol supplies to notice what the opposition was doing in Brighton. Or maybe that was the good news.
On balance, it helps when the Tories spectacularly fail at running the country. Flagrant uselessness in a government is a vital step towards persuading people to vote for a replacement. But it is not sufficient. The opposition has to look ready.
Relegation from the top of the news agenda might, perversely, have done Starmer a favour. With a veil drawn over the proceedings, the public can still imagine that somewhere there is a Labour party chastened by successive defeats, united behind a leader with a plan for winning back trust and a talent for explaining what is broken in the country and how to fix it. That imaginative leap is made harder by exposure to the actual Labour party.
A common gripe about Starmer this week has been a lack of initiative in response to the fuel farrago. A dynamic leader might have seized the moment, or at least seized 15 memorable seconds near the top of the 10 o’clock news. But seizure is not Starmer’s style. There was nothing spontaneous in the campaign that won him the Labour leadership last year. He trod a ponderous path to victory, avoiding traps and swerving positions to avoid offence against left and right.
Methodical risk aversion has been ineffective so far against Boris Johnson. When Labour gets frustrated in its fight against the Tories, it defaults to fighting itself. The Corbynite left is incensed because Starmer promised continuity and is delivering rupture. Andy McDonald, the shadow minister for employment rights, resigned on Monday, accusing Starmer of reneging on a pledge to “maintain our commitment to socialist policies”. A charge, widely aired on the conference fringe, is that a Blairite cabal has captured Starmer’s office and is working its way through the mid-90s playbook to marginalise the left.
But bafflement at the leader’s strategy is not confined to any faction. Plenty of Starmer’s supporters think it was perverse to kick off the conference with an attention-repelling public wrangle over internal party rules.
The outcome was a win for Starmer on the most significant revisions. It will be harder for a radical left caucus to get a candidate on the ballot paper in future leadership contests and then re-enact the grassroots mobilisation that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to victory in 2015. But even MPs who support the changes (some of which protect them from what they see as vigilante ideological deselection by local activists) think the process was mishandled. There was, they say, insufficient strategic preparation for the battle, and poor communication of the goals. Rancour was maximised inside the conference hall, while the message of renewal and repudiation of Corbynism failed to reach a wider audience.
There is something peculiar about a leader so new to the role stamping his authority on the process by which his successor will be chosen. Starmer is still a relatively fresh figure in the eyes of the country, yet here he is squandering limited political capital on an argument that draws attention to his best-before date.
When Tony Blair rewrote clause IV of the Labour constitution, he was using an internal theological dispute to send a wider signal. He was advertising the party’s accommodation to the settled facts of a privatised economy. (The scale of that acquiescence is still disputed but no one doubts that the point got made.) Starmer seems to want symbolic distance from Corbynism without saying what the symbols represent in the real world.
All might become clear on Wednesday when the leader delivers his keynote address. Even if he wows the conference hall and his winged rhetoric soars to the top of the evening bulletins, the party will be relieved but not reassured. The weakness that has been exposed in Brighton is not something that can be fixed with florid phrases (although a few of those wouldn’t go amiss). Nor is it a problem of ideology (although left and right think the solution is purging each other). The conference has been marked by a deficiency in political craft – working the party and media machinery with agility and guile, so that by the end of the day the talk is all about your chosen subject, on your preferred terms. Some have that skill intuitively; others learn it on the job or surround themselves with pros who handle it.
But Starmer looks lonely at the top. His mandate from the membership is wide but shallow. He has no tribe. Many MPs support him, but not for what he believes or in the expectation that he can win an election. They see his function as a doorstop against the hard left. The job, although few say so openly, is to squat the leadership for long enough to drive through structural changes that will benefit the next generation of candidates, who can get organised in the meantime.
That calculation reflects brutal political arithmetic. Overturning Johnson’s 80-seat majority in one go requires a seismic electoral event of epoch-shaping magnitude. Such quakes cannot be summoned from the earth by wishful thinking. The likeliest scenario at the next election is an erosion of the Tory position, giving Labour a better shot at Downing Street for the election after.
That is the real reason why the conference has felt detached from the daily news. The leader might think he is treading the road to government, but he is surrounded by people mapping routes for his replacement.
The slow-motion contest is well under way. Any Labour figure with a high profile, or even a low one, is presumed to be a candidate: Angela Rayner, Rachel Reeves, David Lammy, Wes Streeting, Andy Burnham (always), Yvette Cooper (again). The roster changes. Names rise and fall in the speculative race – painted wooden horses on a rumour carousel spinning jauntily on the Brighton beachfront, with a queasy-looking Starmer carried along for the ride. And all that the public hears is the repetitive strains of the hurdy-gurdy, reminding them of a faded attraction, somewhere off in the distance, going round in circles.