Starmer wins internal party battle but he must find his voice on botched Brexit

Labour conference was dominated by disputes within the party about rule changes

The hecklers who interrupted Keir Starmer’s speech more than 20 times were persistent enough to stop the Labour leader in his tracks a couple of times. But his response, “shouting slogans or changing lives?”, and a standing ovation from delegates in the hall gave him just the visual moment he was looking for.

Starmer wanted to demonstrate that Labour under his management is a centrist party voters should take seriously as an alternative to Boris Johnson’s government. He not only closed the door on the Corbyn era but eulogised New Labour, listing the achievements of the party’s last period in power from 1997 to 2010.

He used his personal biography as the son of a toolmaker and a nurse to present himself as the product of two great traditions of Britain’s labour movement, skilled manual labour and public service. And he drew on his experience as director of public prosecutions to assert Labour as the party of law and order.

The speech came at the end of a conference that was dominated by an internal battle about rule changes that ended in a victory for Starmer that his allies welcomed as a powerful assertion of his mastery over the party. The most important change makes it more difficult for local constituency parties to deselect a sitting MP, a move that was celebrated in Brighton by most of the parliamentary party.


Starmer joined forces with some of the biggest unions to push through the changes, and to instal David Evans, who is anathema to the left, as Labour’s general secretary. These moves sit uneasily with Starmer’s promise during last year’s leadership campaign to unite the party.

More seriously, he has torn up policy pledges he made during that campaign, notably to bring energy companies into public ownership. Starmer brushed off his broken promises, saying circumstances had changed since last year, but they could undermine his image as an honourable straight arrow in contrast to the “trickster” Johnson.

Filling stations

While Labour was talking to itself, the rest of the country was talking about the fuel crisis that has seen queues at filling stations for almost a week. Starmer has called on the government to get a grip, but he has been reticent about wading too far into discussing a problem that is partly a consequence of Brexit.

A YouGov poll on Wednesday found that 53 per cent in Britain think Brexit is going badly, up from 38 per cent in June, and only 18 per cent think it is going well, down from 25 per cent.

Even Leave voters are growing more dissatisfied, with 39 per cent saying it is going badly, compared to 18 per cent in June.

Starmer has won the battle within his own party but if he is to take the fight to Johnson he will have to find his voice on the botched Brexit that is behind so many of the problems plaguing Britain.