A more important development, in Starmer’s eyes, is the return to Labour of former MP Louise Ellman, who quit over antisemitism — but, deurslaggewend, came back
In an ideal world, Keir Starmer would not have wanted Andy McDonald to resign from his shadow cabinet in the middle of the Labour conference. His surprise move, two days after his plans to boost workers’ rights were approved by delegates, eclipsed Rachel Reeves’ policy speech on the TV news bulletins with another internal Labour row.
Yet I doubt Starmer lost much sleep last night over the departure of Jeremy Corbyn’s last remaining acolyte from his top team. A more important development earlier yesterday, in Starmer’s eyes, was the return to Labour of Louise Ellman – a former MP who had quit over antisemitism but came back after the conference backed a new disciplinary system to tackle the problem. “A big step forward followed by a small step back,” one loyalist frontbencher said.
McDonald is a respected figure who acted as a bridge between Starmer and the trade unions. His role as shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections was downgraded as an unintended consequence of Starmer’s botched reshuffle in May; to placate Angela Rayner after Starmer tried to demote her, she was handed four titles including shadow secretary of state for the future of work.
McDonald felt strongly about Starmer’s rejection of the £15-an-hour national minimum wage sought by the left. It is currently £8.91, and Labour’s more realistic policy – at a time when it is trying to regain its economic credentials and repair relations with business – is a rise to at least £10. But McDonald’s resignation also suited the left’s strategy to destabilise Starmer in the hope of showing he is not up to the job, and is wrong to jettison much of the Corbyn agenda – to which he nodded approvingly during his leadership campaign. John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, rather gave the game away when he said after McDonald’s announcement: “The conference is falling apart.”
Corbynistas want to be vindicated. They believe a majority of Labour’s grassroots members still want to walk the true path of Corbynism, though Starmer allies detect a shift back to the century by a membership that has had enough brilliant defeats. By rattling Starmer’s cage, his left-wing critics hope to create the conditions for a leadership contest if there is a consensus across the party he has failed.
It’s very unlikely to happen. In werklikheid, McDonald’s resignation helps Starmer’s conference strategy – to show the public that the left is now marginalised, and the Corbyn era is history. Starmer has his big choice. Elected on a ticket to unite the party, he has come off the fence and concluded that unity built on Corbyn’s programme would not look credible to voters.
The left is losing its influence; it knows centrists have taken back control of the party. Although Starmer didn’t get all the rule changes he wanted, the reforms approved by the conference will make it harder for left-wing activists to deselect Labour MPs and for a left-winger to stand in a future leadership contest. Starmer is is finally showing he means business – and, significantly, allies are urging him to stick around even if he does not become prime minister at the first attempt, as Die Onafhanklike reveals today.
Egter, he will surely have to make real progress to be able to hang on.
The last time Labour held its conference two years ago, also in Brighton, Jeremy Corbyn dominated it; many in his party dared to hope he would soon become prime minister.
Now the wheel has turned full circle: Corbyn is back to where I watched him at my first Labour conference in 1981 – speaking to several fringe meetings in Brighton, then as the warm-up act for the left’s hero and his mentor Tony Benn, during another struggle between Labour’s left and right. This week Corbyn looked happier than when he was leader as he addressed a band of adoring fans on the Brighton seafront, telling them: “When we campaign together, we are very strongly and above all we are unbeatable.” Yet Starmer is now beating the left.
Corbyn told the BBC he had been “very happy to lead this party” and that it “rediscovered our socialist roots” under him. The difference between him and Starmer is that the Corbyn project was more about retaining power in the party rather than winning it in the country; his team surprised itself by getting so close at the 2017 verkiesing. Starmer, in contrast, has one goal – to get into office so Labour has a chance to implement its policies. He now needs to convince his party he is capable of doing it.