The British Labour Party’s first in-person party conference since Sir Keir Starmer won the leadership election was always going to be a difficult obstacle for him. Starmer inherited a party that had just suffered its fourth general election defeat and under his predecessor had achieved the party’s worst election result in 84 years. The December 2019 general election also preceded the implementation of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the U.K.’s Conservative government has gone from one catastrophic blunder to the next in handling these events, it has maintained a solid polling lead ahead of Labour throughout the chaos.
Yet Starmer and his team went into an already divisive conference looking to fight internal battles before they could take on the external ones. Despite his relatively successful navigation of those hurdles, the Labour leadership has received strong criticism, not just from those sympathetic to his political opponents within the party who believe he has abandoned promises made to the Labour left, such as the nationalization of energy companies, but also from those who had supported his leadership campaign, like political strategist Simon Fletcher.
The criticisms Starmer has faced regarding party unity cannot be adequately addressed without mentioning the elephant in the room, the previous Labour leader and stalwart of the party’s socialist wing, Jeremy Corbyn.
In 2015, following Labour’s third successive general election defeat, Corbyn’s brand of radicalism, his down-to-earth, left-wing populism and his history of opposition to the Iraq War saw him win the party leadership election by a landslide, much to the dismay of his more moderate parliamentary colleagues. Corbyn’s long record of questionable alliances and displays of solidarity with militant organizations by this point had not impacted his growing popularity with a newly energized party membership looking for a clean break from New Labour. But Corbyn’s past associations would eventually come to haunt him, as the British tabloid press had a field day with several PR disasters for the Labour leadership, including a scandal about his laying of a wreath on the graves of the masterminds of the Munich terror attack, dubbed wreathgate. Even after the press were done with him, you still got the impression they went easy on him, as his foreign policy positions, such as his affiliation with Syrian chemical weapons denialists and his position on the Balkan wars, were never fully scrutinized.
As the British writer Taylor Parkes said of Corbyn on the campaign trail, “he doesn’t just have skeletons in his closet, he hangs up his shirts in an ossuary.” It did not take a fortune teller to predict what the inevitable outcome of his leadership would be.
Corbyn’s tumultuous reign of the Labour Party, however, saw it come spectacularly close to unseating the Conservative government during the pre-Brexit uncertainty of the 2017 election, before its electoral collapse two years later. By this point, the public’s patience with the Labour leader had worn thin after a series of blunders, such as his incompetent response to the Salisbury poisonings and his attitude toward the party’s growing antisemitism crisis, exacerbated by his own murky history on the subject.
In October 2020, the U.K.’s human rights body, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, released its long-anticipated report into the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism complaints under Corbyn’s leadership. The report found that the Labour Party had unlawfully discriminated against Jewish members and stated unequivocally that they found a culture in the party that, “at best, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it.”
In response, the former party leader issued a public statement in which he said he did “not accept all the findings” of the report and that the problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party.” The statement was a political embarrassment for Starmer’s office, as they were trying to accept and implement the findings of the statutory investigation, and Corbyn was subsequently suspended by the Labour Party following his refusal to apologize and withdraw his comments. And despite being readmitted into the party as a member, Corbyn has not retained the parliamentary whip and now sits in Parliament as an independent MP.
As things stand under the current party leadership, as long as Corbyn refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for the EHRC ruling, he will remain exiled from the party he led for four years, raising the very likely possibility that he will have to stand against a Labour parliamentary candidate in the next general election.
For all the talk of Starmer’s turning his back on party unity from his staunchest critics on the Labour left, the specter of Corbyn’s justified expulsion from the parliamentary Labour Party is never far behind. Many of Corbyn’s supporters within the party remain fiercely loyal to the former leader, with the Momentum movement, an organization initially created to support his candidacy, now acting as a potent Corbynite lobbying force within the party’s internal democratic bodies.
Momentum’s loyalty to the former leader appears to be stronger than its commitment to electing a Labour government, as can be seen by the organization’s attempts to restore Corbyn’s whip and their failed attempts to defeat the party’s implementation of the EHRC’s findings during the conference vote. In reading many of the critical assessments of Starmer’s attitude to party unity from his critics on the Labour left, one might question whether an outbreak of mass amnesia had broken out, for even a cursory mention of Momentum’s attempts to sabotage the party’s legal obligations in response to the EHRC verdict is nowhere to be found.
When Starmer was campaigning to become Labour leader, he promised to tear out the poison of antisemitism in the Labour Party “by its roots.” The party’s only Jewish affiliate, the Jewish Labour Movement, had threatened to disaffiliate from the party under Corbyn’s leadership. Following on from Momentum’s defeat on the EHRC rulings, JLM chair Mike Katz said, “Thanks to Starmer, who has been unbending his commitment to root out antisemitism from Labour, this bad dream is coming to an end.”
It is true that Labour remains a party divided by the factional warfare that Starmer has chosen at times to stoke rather than de-escalate. But the cynical and disingenuous nature of much of the opposition toward him is laid bare over the antisemitism issue. Yes, Labour is divided, but when that division is between those who wish to repair the damage with Britain’s Jewish community and those who wish to cause further harm, there can be no unity.
Any criticism of Starmer’s leadership during this conference that fails to address the party’s ongoing response to a racism scandal of its own making is little more than another branch of propaganda in the relentless Labour forever war, a long history of factional infighting and confrontations with the hard left of the party.
The divisions do not end there. The conference saw several other protracted rows, including over trans rights, the minimum wage, the nationalization of public services and foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine, among other issues. Foreign policy, while being another key divergence between the Corbyn and Starmer leaderships, is not normally a major feature of party conferences.
The most controversial of these rows, however, was about the rule changes for future leadership elections, contests that had previously handed both Corbyn and Starmer leadership victories. Starmer went into the conference seeking to change the rules on leadership elections to reduce the electoral power of party members but abandoned those plans in an embarrassing climbdown shortly before the conference began when it became clear he could not rely on union support for the measures. He was, however, successful in his overall bid to hand greater power to MPs in deciding potential leadership candidates, bringing the threshold for nominations up from 10% to 20%.
The Labour left correctly perceived this rule change as an attempt by the current party power-that-be to prevent a left-wing outsider like Corbyn winning a Labour leadership election against the will of the majority of party MPs. Those who back the measures will argue that an MP who cannot command the trust of at least one-fifth of their colleagues is unlikely to win the support of the electorate.
Whichever way you feel about these rule changes, it is fair to say that the majority of the electorate do not care. Whichever way you feel about Corbyn, it is fair to say he was the most unpopular Labour leader since the 1970s and was found responsible for the party’s institutional failure on antisemitism.
The decision to go into a conference with a strategy to permanently outmaneuver the party’s traditional socialist bloc may well seem like hubristic factional warfare during a period of national crisis. But in making the calculation that Britain cannot afford another Corbyn, it surely isn’t surprising that the new Labour leadership wants to show it understood the electorate’s message in 2019.
The problems Labour now face are stark. Post-conference polling, in the middle of a fuel crisis of the government’s own creation, still shows the party several points behind the Tories, and the electorate’s perception of the party’s electoral chances is poor.
In order to win power, Labour must persuade Tory voters to switch to Labour. Starmer’s leadership has seemingly made the calculation that to do that, it has to de-emphasize the party’s social liberalism. This in turn angers the party’s socially liberal base, creating further internal division and exacerbating the party’s image problem.
In the discussion of the party’s discord over trans rights, the New Statesman’s political editor Stephen Bush encapsulated the problems Labour finds itself in. “The Labour leadership has tried to avoid being publicly divided on the issue,” he said. “As a result, hardly anyone who supports the party’s liberal position on trans rights believes Labour is committed to it, while almost everyone who opposes the party’s position thinks that Labour holds the position it does solely as a result of the leadership’s unwillingness to speak up on the issue.”
This is a mountain that Labour will have to climb if it wants to even come close to eroding the Tory polling lead, but there remain no easy solutions, particularly against a Tory party hell-bent on waging a socially conservative “culture war.”
Starmer’s polling with the electorate is trending downward, and while there are some signs of optimism for Labour, the battle ahead of them is formidable. In addition, the country has little interest in litigating Labour’s internal affairs or listening to a party that cannot decide what it stands for.
After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, Starmer may have emerged relatively unscathed from a febrile week in Brighton. But now, with the Corbynite flank of the party defeated and demoralized, Labour can no longer afford to expend further political capital on internal warfare and party bureaucracy. The country needs a competent political opposition, and Sir Keir Starmer has no place left to hide.