POLITICS
06/08/2021 08:02 BST | Updated 06/08/2021 08:06 BST

Fighting Them On The Beaches: Keir Starmer Draws His Battle Lines For The Next Election

Labour leader spends summer prepping for his first live party conference – and beyond

Andrew Milligan - PA Images via Getty Images
Keir Starmer is hoping to make up for lost time this summer. 

Like many British holidaymakers, Keir Starmer and his family will be taking a break in the west country this year. But as he samples the delights of Devon, his day job won’t be far away.

The Labour leader will be studying and refining the first draft of his party conference speech, due to be handed to him just before he departs for the summer sun. “Some poor kid will be building a sandcastle and then hear Keir say ‘Conference! This is who I am...’,” jokes one aide about “the speech on the beach”.

For Starmer, this summer is a chance to make up for lost time, both in the pandemic and in his leadership. Emerging from his fourth period of self-isolation, imposed after his son contracted Covid, the leader of the Opposition was in Scotland this week on one of his tours of the places Labour needs to win back to have a chance of forming the next government.

Staffers are hoping that he doesn’t have to isolate a fifth time and are seriously having to think of contingency plans for this year’s conference. Under one plan floated, if the cases of the virus were to spike again, Starmer could be put in a Covid-secure “bubble” and placed in a hotel room for 10 days before his big speech in Brighton. “We can’t risk him getting pinged,” one said.

The stakes are certainly high as Labour tries to build on a recent narrowing of the opinion polls and move beyond the politics of the pandemic. With a general election expected possibly as early as May 2023, the sense of urgency within Starmer’s team is palpable.

That team has seen some significant changes since the setbacks of May 6, when the party lost swaths of council seats and the by-election in Hartlepool, another brick knocked out of its broken “Red Wall”.

Winning the Batley and Spen by-election just a few weeks later, albeit by just over 300 votes, provided a badly needed boost to morale as new staff replaced much of the team that had been by Starmer’s side since his 2020 leadership victory.

Crucially, the newly-shaped team all have experience from Labour’s years in power, having served in various roles under either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Political director Luke Sullivan worked for Nick Brown when he was government chief whip, director of strategy Deborah Mattinson was Gordon Brown’s pollster and interim director of communications was a special adviser to Blair in No.10.

The latest recruit, new chief of staff Sam White, was special adviser to former chancellor Alistair Darling. “He lived through the financial crisis at the Treasury, he’s a calm head on sensible shoulders,” one colleague said.

White, who is currently working at insurance giant Aviva, impressed Starmer last year when he was seconded to the party to run the leader’s “Covid committee”, coordinating his response to the pandemic until last August. When White starts work in September, he’ll replace Morgan McSweeney, who will become the leader’s elections director.

Together with new campaigns coordinator Shabana Mahmood, and her deputy Conor McGinn, the reshaped leader’s team has worked with Starmer on a more aggressive stance against the Tory government as the nation moved out of lockdown. Building on the theme of a “summer of chaos”, they’ve seized on Boris Johnson’s missteps over travel, isolation and the disruption caused by the July “pingdemic”.

But the wider strategic plan was to move on from Covid, using the summer to attack the Tories on crime and anti-social behaviour, while promoting Labour’s own plans for flexible working and workers’ rights. Johnson’s own “crime week” last week was seen as a sign that Labour was at least aiming at the right target.

Being seen as the party of the police is a more important change than tackling anti-Semitism. Proving we are not a racist party is a basic hygiene issue.Labour insider.

Despite Johnson’s claims to be half way to his 2019 election pledge to recruit 20,000 police officers, Labour strategists believe the PM will lose his numbers game because the figure will barely cover those lost under cuts since 2010. When PCSOs and police backroom staff are taken into account, the government would need to hire 40,000 staff just to get back to 2010 levels. “It’s Back to the Future stuff,” one aide says.

With the Police Federation announcing they’d lost confidence in home secretary Priti Patel over their pay freeze, Labour certainly spots an opening. Police rank and file officers, many of them not from wealthy backgrounds, are precisely the kind of voters the party needs too. “We’ve got to be the party of the police,” one insider says.

And in a pointed reference to Tory “culture war” attacks, they added: “We’ve got to be able to say at some point: if you want to ‘defund the police’, join the Tories.” Starmer’s own record as a former director of public prosecutions, cracking down on criminals and terrorists, will be highlighted too.

After Starmer and new shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, it will be shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds who will be the key figure at the party conference as aides try to create the political space for him to ram home messages such as being “pro-police and pro-police reform”.

“Being seen as the party of the police is a more important change than tackling anti-Semitism. Proving we are not a racist party is a basic hygiene issue. It’s like you need to brush your teeth to get the job, but you need to do a lot more than that to get hired,” one insider said.

Starmer’s own conference speech draft will be based on a series of notes, some on policy, some on the politics, some on his personal story. Further iterations will take place after his holiday and virtually every week until the big day in September in Brighton. “A lot of the way Keir works is he likes to internalise, to memorise an argument,” one aide says. “And this will be his biggest argument to date.”

Staff say that 18 months into the job, the main phrase the public associate with Starmer is “don’t know”. “That’s a problem but also an opportunity,” one says. “When you tell Keir’s story people warm to it. This idea he’s a posh lawyer, when in fact he comes from a humble background but he was knighted for fighting crime. If you were to put his biog next to Johnson’s, I do not doubt who you could most relate to.”

Andrew Milligan - PA Images via Getty Images
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Whitelees windfarm, Eaglesham

The summer campaign has been a way not just to meet voters but also to befriend and reassure regional media, spending time with them beyond the few minutes in front of a camera.

On a trip to Blackpool, he had fish and chips in downtime with local media at Harry Ramsden’s restaurant. On this week’s trip to Scotland, he had tea and cake with journalists for an hour in the rooftop Mackintosh cafe in Glasgow. “It’s about relationship building, letting people judge the real person,” one ally said. The South West is next week, then Wales later in the month.

Colleagues say that the Labour leader has his confidence back too since the Batley result. But while the summer is important, it’s the autumn that will be key. “The big tram lines for the general election are coming up: conference season, the ending of furlough, the autumn statement and spending review,” one insider says. At each point, Johnson will face the difficult choices that come with office.

Conference comes first, and Starmer allies have been buoyed by successes for centrists in delegate elections for local parties in recent weeks. In London, which makes up a huge 40% of the national membership, “moderates” have taken back control of key positions from the Left.

Unite’s new general secretary will be elected at the end of this month, and if Gerard Coyne wins, the Left will have lost its most potent power base, and biggest funding source, in the labour movement.

“If he’s got the majority of unions and a majority of delegates, it should be a pretty smooth conference,” one old hand says. With Starmer in control of the National Executive Committee and its Officers Group inner circle, it’s unlikely there will be no last-minute surprises. “That’s why it feels like it’s all going to come down to Keir’s performance,” the party figure adds.

That in itself will test his speaking skills as never before. The longest speech he made to a live conference was about five minutes as shadow Brexit secretary. This speech will be 45 minutes to an hour long.

For some insiders, the real problem with the party conference is the sheer time and energy taken up by debates which were significantly expanded under Jeremy Corbyn’s drive to make Labour a “member-led party”.

The leadership sees the week in Brighton as its first chance since the pandemic to lead the six o’clock news every night with positive coverage. But under party rules it has to deal with 24 motions (up from four when the party was in office) and multiple requests for constitutional changes. Debates on Palestine and trans rights could attract significant media attention.

There is chatter within the party of a rule change to cut the sheer number of motions currently required, creating more space for the 2022 “pre-general election” conference. That’s why some see this year’s conference as a companion to next year’s: 2021 is about the party showing it has changed, 2022 is about “these guys should be in government”, one party source says.

When Starmer spoke on the phone to Barack Obama last summer, the former US president told him his main lesson in politics was to “know your coalition” of voters. Mattinson has done a lot of work testing possible conference messages, and her main role is to identify what Labour’s coalition is going to look like at the next election, and the strategy for reaching them.

Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.

Senior party figures stress however just how formidable Boris Johnson is as an opponent. Some still have flashbacks about how Johnson was totally underestimated back in early 2008 ahead of his first London Mayoral contest with Ken Livingstone. The party started to depict him as a buffoon, then a racist, but neither worked.

Getting their party to understand why Johnson is liked by so many voters is a key task for some. “Our party thinks that every time he opens his mouth, he’s an idiot, he’s a liar. But actually that doesn’t work, it backfires because he presents himself as a flawed character. The public quite like that he sometimes falls. He can get stuck on a zip wire but he’s seen as a great sport,” one says.

Instead, they argue, Labour has to show that Johnson’s flaws have a direct impact on the public’s daily life: from parents having to home-school their children, to employees being forced into repeated isolation by the NHS app to pupils facing exam chaos. Johnson’s lack of competence and his empty promises on things like “levelling up” are seen as his real Achilles’ heel.

Johnson’s upbeat nature is also a real challenge, especially when some voters believed that Corybn’s Labour was relentlessly negative. By contrast, Starmer’s conference speech will be all about a better Britain. Insiders say that what struck them most campaigning in Hartlepool and elsewhere this year was that there was a thirst among voters for optimism. “We haven’t owned optimism for a very long time and if we don’t we’re in trouble.”

Party staffers say that Johnson has a talent for making Brexit sound exciting and bold, and for mining a sense among voters that the entire establishment told them the UK was going to fail and it hadn’t. By contrast, the leadership thinks many Labour MPs believe the country would be better off back in the EU. Gordon Brown recently said publicly what many think privately, that he would personally like to see the UK rejoin the union.

Brexit is undoubtedly one of the “culture war” issues Johnson loves to deploy against Starmer. Yet Starmer’s team were delighted that another such skirmish, over the whole topic of the England football team taking the knee, badly backfired on the PM and the Tories. “Johnson really, really wanted to pose for photos outside No.10 with that England team after the Euros, and there’s no way that’s going to happen now,” one Labour figure said.

Still, Labour are already preparing for next year’s May local elections to be used as a test bed for some more Tory culture warrior deployments. They expect that the first week of the campaign will see something like a report on “cancel culture” in universities, and in the last week there will be a confected row with Brussels to turn out Labour Leave voters.

“They want to take us from our grid to their grid. That happened to us over and over again in the local elections this year. The reason why we went on the attack on the sleaze stuff was because we had to just drag them onto our grid. It became less like a chess game and more like a knife fight. And we have to remember that.”

And Starmer’s own record on controversial topics is chequered to say the least. Senior staff still blanch when recalling how the leader waded into the row over Meghan Markle accusing some in the Royal Family of being racist.

On a conference call, some Labour staffers suggested Starmer had to “take a stand” because otherwise he would not be an ally of minority ethnic communities. In an interview, Starmer said “we’ll have to see how the institution reacts”, putting the Queen effectively in the dock.

Within days, following anger among Labour MPs, the line had changed and he said it was a matter for Buckingham Palace to resolve. “The whole incident just proved how inexperienced he is,” one MP said. “If you want to be PM, you never, ever comment on the Royal family.”

The Queen has just started her traditional August stay at Balmoral, and Boris Johnson is due to join her at some point. And for some senior Starmer allies, the importance of winning back seats in Scotland cannot be overstated.

Labour party
Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar

“There is no route to winning a general election that doesn’t start with a strong recovery in Scotland,” one says. That’s why Starmer staged a two-day stay this week, challenging both the SNP and the Tories on green jobs, but also stressing he would never enter coalition with Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

“As long as the Tories are able to convincingly make an argument about Labour needing the SNP to govern, they will easily make the argument that ‘these are the people who hate your country, and Labour want to put them in charge’. It is the most effective culture war they could possibly have on us, over and above anything else.”

Aides say that although the Tories stumbled on the attack line late in the 2015 election campaign, it worked ruthlessly. In white working class areas like Croydon, the idea of Ed Miliband being in the pocket of Alex Salmond was “the biggest thing on the doorstep”, one says. Now, there is a lot more SNP material the Tories could use too.

That threat is why the election of Anas Sarwar as Labour leader in Scotland is seen by close Starmer aides as one of his biggest successes of the past year. Quietly engineering the departure of former leader Richard Leonard was designed to start the long-term process of winning back more Westminster seats to avoid relying on the SNP in a hung parliament.

It’s also why the party was delighted to have some media parity with Johnson as both leaders staged photo-calls this week (with the bonus of the PM blundering into a row over Margaret Thatcher closing coal mines).

The TV cameras were, however, barred and only a still photographer allowed, as Starmer’s team played five-a-side against Sarwar’s one night. Losing at the interval, “he gave us quite a robust team talk at half time”, one staffer confided. In the second half, Starmer scored personally and his team won 17-15.

The Labour leader’s parliamentary team are hoping that game of two halves is a metaphor for his own battle against Johnson. There is certainly more bite to Starmer’s tackling of the government these days. As both men head for their English holidays this summer, they’ll be trying to stay match fit for the packed autumn season that follows.