Keir Starmer appeared on the Andrew Marr Show in Brighton this morning to kick off Labour party conference. Faced with a revolt on the left of his party over his proposed rule changes and an overnight row over his deputy Angela Rayner’s latest Tory scum comments, the Labour leader tried to turn the focus back to his pitch to voters. Only things didn’t go quite to plan.
Following a dip in the polls over the past year, Starmer attempted to brush off criticism that he has failed to make his mark in the role. He took issue with Marr’s suggestion that many people believe he is too dull to succeed as Labour leader – that a ‘showman’ is required – suggesting that the Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford showed it is possible to succeed with a more low key style.
Starmer also insisted that Labour is making progress under him – even if that’s not reflected in the polls. He said the party has gone from an election where ‘people wouldn’t hear us’ to a point where they are now getting a fairer hearing. Only when it comes to what the party has to say to voters, there was still confusion. Marr put it to Starmer that his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves had ruled out any income tax rise in an interview with the Sunday Times. Starmer emphasised that Reeves had only said she is ‘not considering increasing income tax at the moment’ and ‘nothing is off the table’.
While Starmer clearly wanted to give himself space to change tack if circumstances change, his comments served to muddle the message. He also appeared to break with his shadow environment secretary Ed Miliband and his original leadership pitch. Starmer said he would not nationalise the big six energy companies. He had previously pledged to put ‘public services... in public hands’ – but pointed to pragmatism for the change of heart. In a sign of further internal disagreements, he suggested that Labour MP Rosie Duffield (who is staying away from the conference on security grounds) had been wrong to say that only women have a cervix.
The most striking part of the interview was Starmer’s comments with respect to his deputy Angela Rayner. Overnight, Rayner has caused controversy after using a speech at a conference reception to refer to the Tories as ‘a bunch of scum’ and ‘homophobic, racist, misogynistic’. Asked whether Rayner ought to apologise, Starmer repeatedly refused to say. Instead, he said: ‘Angela and I take different approaches. That is not language that I would use.’ As for whether she ought to apologise, he said: ‘That's a matter for Angela but I would not have used those words.’
It was clear that he wanted to distance himself from Rayner’s remarks. He said that he would speak with her over the issue today. The question is: if Starmer wanted Rayner to apologise, would he be able to get her to – or is his position as leader too weak to make it happen?