As the Tories faced multiple crises this week, Keir Starmer’s party was busy in Brighton doing what it does best: arguing with itself. The Labour conference has been dominated by internal rows about rule changes, a shadow cabinet resignation and whether or not Tories can be called ‘scum’.
Labour’s failure to focus on the chaos at petrol stations or chastise the Tories for incompetence was enough to baffle international visitors. ‘Why didn’t Starmer start conference at a petrol station in Brighton trying to fill people’s cars?’ one experienced diplomat asked me. ‘It would have been everywhere.’
It is a good question. The fuel crisis is a rare political event that affects most people. Labour could have hammered the government relentlessly, pointing to how ministers were asleep at the wheel as the crisis worsened. ‘That’s what people across the country are talking about, but we’re not even a part of that conversation,’ says one Labour MP. ‘It’s like being in an alternate universe,’ adds one worn-down attendee.
Starmer had hoped to use the conference to end his party’s navel-gazing and outline his vision to the country. While he made some progress on this with his leader's speech, the conference headlines haven’t been exactly what Team Starmer pictured. One of Starmer’s former aides came out to denounce his leadership. The word ‘cervix’ trended on social media after Starmer said in an interview that it was wrong to say only women have one. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s debut conference speech was overshadowed by the news that Andy McDonald, an ally of the now-exiled Jeremy Corbyn, had quit the shadow cabinet. McDonald’s resignation was such a debacle that Starmer’s supporters claimed it was a plot by ousted Corbynites to undermine the party’s leadership.
Some of Starmer’s other allies still insist the conference went well for them. Starmer succeeded in changing the party rules to make it harder for the left to challenge him or deselect MPs. ‘It’s Starmer’s biggest victory since he became Labour leader,’ says one adviser.
This, however, is not saying much. Internal focus groups tell Labour strategists that the voters who backed the Tories in 2019 are starting to have doubts — but it would be surprising if that were otherwise. A cost of living crisis as a result of government cuts, rising gas prices and staff shortages will obviously focus minds. Recent polls suggest that Labour are closing the gap between the two parties, but still, despite all the mayhem, the Tories remain ahead.
Even if Labour does get lucky and the Tories flounder, few believe it will have been a result of effective opposition. The conference, instead of moving the party on from the past 12 months, will have reminded people of how severe Labour’s problems are and how far away the party is from a solution.
If not Starmer, then who? Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, has been accused of showing leadership ambitions after he signed up to speak at 11 fringe events. Some MPs complain that he’s trying to turn conference into the Andy Burnham show, but unless he returns to Westminster he’s not a serious candidate. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, also caught people’s attention. In a packed-out fringe event — with people queuing around the bend — she showed her green credentials by suggesting that a Labour government would only work with allies like Australia if they committed to climate change targets. But she’s hardly ready to make a move.
And this, perhaps, is the best news both for the Labour leader and the Prime Minister. For now, Starmer has no serious challengers. Boris Johnson can sit tight.