Starmer hoping for a calmer, happier Labour conference in Liverpool… but will he get one?

Politics

After last year’s showdown with the Labour left on party rules and the resignation of a shadow cabinet minister, Sir Keir Starmer is hoping for a calmer, happier conference in Liverpool.

But the leader knows he is not in control of all his party’s levers – and his bête noires in Momentum and the Corbyn-backing left-wing factions may distract from his attempt at a prime ministerial pitch.

“We’re a democratic party,” a Starmer ally said with a wry smile. “Unlike the Tories. So delegates will debate all sorts.”

“There won’t be any monumental fights over internal party matters,” conceded one campaigner organising the anti-Starmer fightback. There will, however, be a battle over policy. Or rather a battle over whether the conference even gets to debate policy.

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Labour promises ‘growth for everyone’

Sunday’s ballot on “priorities” – the topics discussed on the conference floor – is the best chance for Sir Keir and his allies to shut down fights over awkward issues.

“The leadership will try every trick in the book to rig the vote,” the Starmer sceptic told me.

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Two key issues being pushed by left-wing delegates are supporting strikes (after rows over whether shadow ministers should join picket lines) and the nationalisation of energy companies (the big five plus the National Grid).

Sir Keir would prefer to avoid debates on both.

Mick Lynch of the left-wing RMT union has told Sky News: “I don’t expect [Starmer] to come onto our picket lines, I’m not that naive.”

But he argued the Labour leader needs to show he is on the side of workers: “We want him to win the election but we want him to do it on a basis working people can get behind – he can’t cosy up to business and the Daily Mail all the time, he’s got to cosy up to working class people.”

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Starmer ‘can’t cosy up to Daily Mail’

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Sir Keir warns mini-budget ‘does nothing’ for working people

Team Starmer’s strategy is different: don’t fight each other but fight the Conservatives, and try to look like a credible alternative to the government that is ready to run the country.

“The centre ground has been vacated by the Tories,” a shadow cabinet minister told me shortly after Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget. “And we need to fill it – not be distracted with rows over strikes.”

The danger, they argued, is the trap the Tories have set on tax: “They want to box us in as a high-tax, anti-business party and we’re not going to fall for it.

“We’ll show we’re a patriotic party on Sunday by singing the national anthem. Then have eye-catching announcements that people aren’t expecting.”

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Yet as Angela Rayner demonstrated at last year’s Labour conference, best-laid plans are often ruined when politicians make unexpected news and distract from set-piece speeches.

At an evening fringe event Ms Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, described Conservative ministers as “a bunch of scum” and then prime minister Boris Johnson as a “racist, homophobic misogynist”.

She apologised a month later.

Great debate

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