MICHAEL CRICK: Glimmers of hope… but Labour is still so far from power
How things have changed at Labour conference. After years in which they stayed away in despair, suddenly figures from the Blairite wing of the party have been popping up all over Brighton this week.
Among them, I spotted Peter Mandelson, the great architect of New Labour who has, I’m told, been quietly advising the party’s leader Sir Keir Starmer behind the scenes.
Overall, the centrists can’t hide their satisfaction – and relief.
Whisper it quietly, but it’s been a good week for Starmer. As the Labour leader tucks into his breakfast this morning – revealed by one political hack recently to be ‘fish and cheese’ – he can look back with some satisfaction.
Today, he will deliver his keynote speech to conference, and the country will be watching him as never before.
He may fall flat on his face, rise to any heckles – or, as Theresa May was, even be handed a P45.
But following the morass of the years under Jeremy Corbyn – which saw the party sink to its lowest share of the vote since 1935 – Labour is returning to its senses.
So what exactly has Starmer done?
Following the morass of the years under Jeremy Corbyn (pictured) – which saw the party sink to its lowest share of the vote since 1935 – Labour is returning to its senses
First, he has brought about various rule changes that will make it harder, if not impossible, for a Left-winger such as Corbyn ever to become party leader again.
These changes may seem obscure – but they have profound political consequences. Simply put, any future Labour leader will need the support of at least 20 per cent of the party’s MPs. On current showing, this would mean about 40 Labour MPs will have to back the next leader – and there is no chance of that kind of number voting for another Corbyn.
Second, Starmer has adopted tough new rules to tackle anti-Semitism, which should encourage many disillusioned Jewish people to rejoin the party.
Third, perhaps most crucially, he has been helped by the fact that trade unionists have kept a comparatively low profile at conference this year.
Len McCluskey, whose new memoirs – on sale here in Brighton – show that he more or less ran the party under the leadership of his close friend Jeremy Corbyn, has retired as the boss of Unite.
His successor Sharon Graham deliberately stayed away from conference this year to concentrate on Unite’s industrial work.
Anything that distances Labour from hard-Left unions is good for Starmer: it keeps swing-voter taxpayers on board.
Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) has adopted tough new rules to tackle anti-Semitism, which should encourage many disillusioned Jewish people to rejoin the party
Even the sudden resignation of Andy McDonald from the shadow cabinet on Monday night can be chalked up as a win. McDonald was the last Corbynista in Starmer’s top team.
As he flounced out of the shadow cabinet complaining about the ‘s***show’ under Starmer and insisting the party is more divided than ever, the leader probably thought he was well shot of him.
McDonald had wanted to see the minimum wage hiked from £8.91 to £15 – even Jeremy Corbyn only wanted £10!
So, aside from some difficult conversations relating to trans rights and some unpleasant headlines surrounding his deputy Angela Rayner’s indelicate language (Tory ‘scum’), until now it has all gone well for the former director of public prosecutions. However, though he might have won some important skirmishes, Starmer’s battle to restore Labour into a force capable of winning elections is a long way from won.
The truth is that the tensions between the far Left of the party and the more centrist wing are arguably the most important determinant of whether or not it can win elections. Time and again the party has been torn between those who think Labour has to be cautious to win – and those who believe there’s no point in taking power without radical, socialist change.
Neil Kinnock dragged Labour back to the centre ground in the mid-1980s, paving the way for Tony Blair (pictured), who did so much to make Labour acceptable to middle England
In the early 1980s, Tony Benn and the Left took over, committing the party to nuclear disarmament, leaving the European Community, and wide-scale public ownership of industry.
The debates of those years were far more nasty and bitter than today, and the battles led to Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and other leading Labour figures on the Right breaking away to form the Social Democratic Party.
Neil Kinnock dragged Labour back to the centre ground in the mid-1980s, paving the way for Tony Blair, who did so much to make Labour acceptable to aspirational middle England. Keir Starmer’s task is many times harder than anything faced by Kinnock, Blair or Blair’s successor Gordon Brown.
Unlike them, he cannot rely on safe Labour seats in the North and in Scotland.
Class solidarity is gone: Starmer has to show patriotic voters in the ‘Red Wall’, who gave their votes to Boris Johnson at the last election, that he understands them and shares their concerns.
Given his background as a metropolitan lawyer living in north London, that will not be easy.
Meanwhile, the far Left will not go quietly. Last night, hard-Left MP Richard Burgon was insisting: ‘The rumours of the death of the Labour Left have been somewhat over-exaggerated. The Labour Left is alive.’
The two wings of the party resemble a warring domestic couple – still married but utterly unsuited to one another.
Both claim to speak for Labour but their dysfunctional relationship serves only to horrify the rest of the country.
Nothing will change until they finally divorce.
Jeremy Corbyn’s name has been chanted in the conference hall this week – even though the bearded socialist is no longer a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Then there are Starmer’s personal problems: his absence of passion, and how so many voters are still unsure what he really stands for.
So as he drags his party to the centre ground, he still has a long way to go.
And, despite his key successes this week, he surely knows he doesn’t have long before someone else seeks to topple him.
Michael Crick is Political Correspondent for Mail+
Watch his reports from the Labour Party conference at mailplus.co.uk