Keir Starmer's war with the Labour left will only benefit Boris Johnson
Starmer's decision to sacrifice the left of his party makes Labour's route back into government even narrower.
Keir Starmer’s conference speech on Wednesday will no doubt be remembered for his televised clash with hecklers in the audience, following a week in which he appeared to deliberately stoke a conflict with the left-wing of his party.
Standing behind a podium with the slogan “Stronger Future Together,” Starmer told them that the Labour party should now be “changing lives” rather than “shouting slogans”.
Footage of the incident is already dominating the coverage of his speech.
Similarly his attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s general election manifesto and his lengthy praise for the record of Tony Blair, are also being widely covered.
When it comes to the British press, nothing is more likely to receive glowing coverage than a Labour politician standing up to the left, and Starmer will no doubt get what he’s after.
But once the conference halls in Brighton are cleared, the hard fact remains that Starmer’s party is even more deeply divided than it was before he arrived.
And while few column inches will be spared attempting to understand the left-wing hecklers that shouted down Starmer on Wednesday, the fact remains that their central complaint - that Starmer has broken his promises to them - is undeniably true.
Starmer won the Labour leadership on a promise to unite his party and continue the radical agenda he inherited from Corbyn. Not only has he failed to do that, but he has actively sought to divide his party further.
Having covered UK politics for over a decade, it is not unusual to watch the Labour Party spend their time tearing each other apart. The instinct of Labour activists to focus on their ‘near enemies’ on the left rather than their actual opponents on the right is one that will likely never disappear.
But never has Labour’s instinct for self-immolation felt so at odds with the crises actually facing the country than this week in Brighton. After two years of a chaotic Boris Johnson administration which has presided over the deaths of over 150,000 British citizens, followed by the unravelling of its central Brexit project, Labour’s inability either to diagnose Britain’s ills, nor convince the public that it has the answers to them, has never been more apparent, nor so painful to watch.
And it’s not even that the party is unaware of its problems. At fringe events and conference bars this week, it was difficult to move for politicians and activists complaining about the party’s further descent into infighting.
Yet while they agree about the existence of the problem, they remain deeply divided about their cause. For the left of the party, Starmer’s broken promises and attempts to marginalise the left, have caused an unnecessary crisis which betrays the agenda upon which he was elected.
Yet for the right, the only way to end this division is to publicly marginalise and expel supporters of its former leader further. For Starmer’s team the short-term pain of the left’s exit from the party would be justified by the improvements they believe it will make both to Labour’s long-term unity and its electoral prospects.
So will it work? It is certainly possible to imagine a period when the public, bored with Boris Johnson’s antics and angered over yet more cuts and tax rises, will turn instead towards the Labour leader.
But such a future remains only in the imagination. After a year and a half of his leadership, opinion polls suggest Starmer remains deeply unpopular and his party is seen as deeply divided.
Starmer’s team believe such polls will shift and that their strategy is the only way for that to happen.
However, you don’t have to look far to see examples of successful alternatives. In the United States Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump on a platform that both won over the country while embracing his party’s left flank. Unlike Starmer, Biden sought to embrace the younger and more left-wing parts of his electoral coalition in order to gain power. For whatever reason, Starmer has decided this is not a strategy that he wishes to repeat.
Stuck in the past
When Jeremy Corbyn was leader, much of the analysis in the press focused on the fact that his politics were first forged in the 1970s. Yet while the Corbyn project failed, a large part of the success it did have came from understanding the desires and needs of a generation that were born some decades after that era.
By failing to understand this, Starmer risks alienating a large and, until now, growing part of the Labour party’s electoral coalition. For those generations, for whom the 1970s are just a few pages in a history book, it is Starmer and his newfound admiration for the New Labour years that risks appearing stuck in the past.
Of course Starmer may have calculated that younger people, just like the left wingers who heckled him today, are a sacrifice he needs to make to win power.
Yet by sacrificing that part of his electoral coalition he is making it harder to win over the expanding generations of voters who are growing up in a world without the hopes of mass homeownership and prosperity that first propelled Tony Blair to power.
Labour’s route back into government has been narrow for a long time and it remains so today. The risk for Starmer is that by alienating the left of his party, rather than seeking to accommodate and forge coalitions with them, he risks making that route even narrower still.