Party conferences are often thought to be a waste of time. All they do is give the media an excuse to fuel divisions within parties, whether real or imagined. In his new book MUST LABOUR ALWAYS LOSE, former Labour MP suggests they should be abolished. Given how the first two days of his conference have gone, Sir Keir Starmer might agree.
This conference is the first real opportunity post Covid-lockdowns that Sir Keir has had a proper opportunity to speak both to his party and the country. So quite why he chose this point to pick a fight with the left of his party over internal rule changes, God only knows. He says Labour must be an outward looking party, yet so far most of what we have heard has been about navel gazing.
And last night Angela Rayner, Starmer’s deputy, gave a rather incendiary speech in which she referred to Tories as “Scum” among other things. Personally, I can’t get overexcited by this. It’s a party conference. She was playing to an audience that hates Conservatives and possibly got carried away. It happens. It’s a party conference. Yes, her remarks were distasteful and ill-judged, and they proceed to give Starmer a headache in his Andrew Marr interview this morning, but haven’t we heard worse? Indeed, hot on her heels came Tory MP James Gray who suggested in a Whatsapp group message that Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds should be sent a bomb. Given I am typing this article in a sea facing room in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, a room that was destroyed by the IRA bomb in 1984, you can image how odious I found that remark.
Starmer should have brushed off Rayner’s remark with a wry smile and do what Tony Blair used to do with regard to his own outspoken deputy, John Prescott. “John will be John,” His Toniness used to say and that was that. Instead Starmer dug himself a hole with Andrew Marr, and now that’s all that anyone is talking about in Brighton this afternoon. Keir Starmer’s basic problem is that he isn’t a politician and is a knave when it comes to understanding the basic rules of politics. He’s only been in the Commons for six years and I am afraid he’s just not cut out for the cut and thrust of normal party politics. Yes, he comes across as a decent, nice man, but this is a time when his party expect some streetfighting.
I have been going to party conferences for 37 years. This is the first time I have ever been told that a party leader is not going to do any interviews with the media, apart from the one with Andrew Marr. Nothing with Sky, nothing with any regional media (who will be mightily hacked off), nothing on radio. Just. Nothing. Given media organisations spend huge amounts of money covering these conferences, they (we) can be forgiven for wondering why they (we) bother. If the party leader thinks “letting his speech speak for itself” will do the trick, I am afraid he is probably in for a rude surprise.
I’m broadcasting for six hours from the conference this Monday and Tuesday evenings. That’s a lot of space to fill. So far the only Shadow Cabinet member we have been promised is Ian Murray, the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. They won’t put up anyone for Cross Question on either day on the basis they don’t want ‘red on red’ conflict.
We’ll see how things progress, but what party press offices don’t understand is that if they don’t provide us with guests, we’ll get them ourselves, and they may well be people who they’d rather we didn’t have on. Needs must, eh?