This year’s party conference risks being dominated by factional rows as Starmer tries to <a href="" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-internal-link" data-vars-item-name="rewrite the rules that led to Jeremy Corbyn&#x2019;s election as leader." data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="6149f7ece4b0efa77f85b79e" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="" data-vars-target-content-type="buzz" data-vars-type="web_internal_link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="0">rewrite the rules that led to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.</a>
This year’s party conference risks being dominated by factional rows as Starmer tries to rewrite the rules that led to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.
Jacob King - PA Images via Getty Images

Labour Party Conference: The 4 Key Tests For Keir Starmer

Labour leader faces a tough outing at his first in-person party conference, where trouble is already brewing over proposed rule changes.

The box office political event next week will be Sir Keir Starmer’s first speech as leader of the Labour party at their annual party conference in Brighton.

Pundits and journalists will scrutinise Starmer’s every word, mannerisms and even what he wears.

It will be the most high stakes event of his political career to date as he attempts to outline to the party and public what Starmerism is all about.

“We won’t win the next election, let’s face it, but this is all about setting us on the right path,” says one Labour MP who is sympathetic to Starmer.

However, this year’s conference risks being dominated by factional rows as Starmer tries to rewrite the rules that led to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.

It also comes against a backdrop of fears for Labour MPs that Boris Johnson will call an early election for 2023.

If that is the case, Starmer will have just one more conference next year to set out what his policies are and a Labour vision for government.

It is little wonder that some Labour MPs see this year’s event as a leadership audition.

Here we run through the key challenges for Starmer at Labour party conference 2021.

Rocky relations with the Left

Keeping the left on side (or not overtly hostile to him) is a perennial problem for Starmer, who is regarded as having taken the party to the right since he took over from Corbyn as leader.

His proposal to move away from the leadership rules that elected his predecessor will do little to help.

Conference is braced for a showdown over the proposal, which would replace the one member, one vote (OMOV) system with a return to the electoral college made up of the unions and affiliate organisations, MPs and party members.

Alongside this proposals is the less contentious move to change the trigger ballots to make it harder to deselect MPs. An MP can go through a reselection process if only a third of either party branches or affiliate groups vote for it. Starmer wants to raise the threshold to 50%.

There has already been a furious backlash from leftwing MPs, who believe reverting to the old electoral college system stifles democracy and gives rightwing candidates an advantage.

Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell has branded it a “grubby stitch-up” designed to prevent a Corbyn rerun, while Zarah Sultana, the Labour MP for Coventry South, said the electoral college system was “shameful” and “anti-democratic”.

And in an unprecedented move, the recently elected leader of Unite, Labour’s biggest financial backer, revealed she would not attend conference.

Although Sharon Graham denied the move was a snub to Starmer - arguing instead that she had to focus her time on industrial disputes - the timing of her decision and her criticism of the plans as “unfair, undemocratic and a backward step” suggests otherwise.

None of this pre-conference tension bodes well for Starmer, who ran as leader on the ticket of restoring party unity.

However, one Labour MP said the delegates submitted to this year’s conference were less left-leaning than in previous years - giving Starmer a greater chance of getting the proposal through.

“I assume he knows he’s going to win it,” they said.

However, there has been some talk that Starmer may have to at least delay the plans and put them at a special conference instead of Labour conference so that unions are given more time to scrutinise the changes.

The unions thought to oppose the plans include Unite, the Communication Workers Union, the Fire Brigades Union, the Bakers Union, the National union of Mineworkers, Aslef and the TSSA.

One Labour source told HuffPost UK they feared the focal point of the conference would now be on internal party wrangling.

“Every single person I’ve spoken to from right to left thinks it’s an entirely bonkers move given what’s happening in the country to blow up our own conference,” they said.

There is also the thorny issue of what to do about Corbyn, who will be present at conference.

His supporters are agitating for him to have the Labour whip restored as he currently sits as an independent MP in the Commons.

Last December a number of Corbyn’s high-profile allies issued a statement in which they called on Starmer to “reinstate the whip to Jeremy Corbyn, end the attacks on party democracy, legitimate discussion and recent wave of suspensions, and instead to focus on taking the fight to the Tories”.

The trans rights debate

This debate is proving to be one that all parties - not just Labour - would like to wish away.

It centres largely on the concept of gender self-identification - whereby someone can “self-identify” as their chosen rather than legally assigned gender - and whether male-bodied trans women should be allowed to enter all “women-only” spaces, such as domestic violence shelters and prisons.

The issue has become so toxic that Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury who has spoken out against self-ID, announced she would stay away from Labour conference this year over fears for her safety.

Starmer is now stuck between two camps in his party: one that wants him to embrace self-ID and come out strongly in favour of trans rights, and another that wants to him to ensure protections and safeguards remain for women who want space away from cis-males, regardless of how they identify their gender.

Labour’s position is that it supports gender self-ID, but in a recent briefing Starmer’s spokesperson said trans women can be excluded from some women-only spaces.

“What we have said is that Labour would work to update the gender recognition act to enable the process for gender self identification and we also continue to support the implementation of the equality act, including the single sex exemption, which allows the provision of women-only spaces.”

Starmer will be tested on whether such a position is clear enough to satisfy both camps.

Policy pickles

When Starmer was auditioning for leader following the 2019 general election defeat, part of his analysis of what went wrong was that the party’s manifesto was “overloaded”.

The charge he now faces is that Labour’s blueprint for government is policy-light.

The biggest challenge Starmer faces in this area is whether he has a plan to counter Boris Johnson’s manifesto-breaking pledge to increase national insurance to pay for the NHS, and then social care.

So far, Starmer’s team has only laid out the “principles” of a Labour social care plan, which is that those with the “broadest shoulders” should bear the brunt of financing the broken system.

That could mean a wealth tax, but Starmer has so far not committed firmly to this and is keeping his options open.

The lack of proposal to counter the Tories’ has opened Starmer up Johnson’s jibe that he is a man without a plan, all principles and no action.

It even provoked cries of exasperation from former health secretary Andy Burnham that his plans to overhaul social care were rejected by his party 10 years ago.

He called on Starmer to come up with his own plan, arguing that simply criticising the Tories was not enough.

Where Labour and Starmer do have an opportunity to assert themselves is over the cost of living crisis, characterised by fuel shortages caused by a lack of HGV drivers, rising energy bills from a surge in demand for gas, rising taxes and the cut to Universal Credit.

However, a potential stumbling block could be that while Labour highlights the lack of HGV drivers on the roads, the government holds back on recruiting from abroad to encourage firms to hire British workers on higher wages instead.

Starmer could then inadvertently find himself an unlikely advocate for importing cheap labour from abroad - hardly a Labour party message.

Starmer himself

It was always going to be a tough act for whoever followed Corbyn as party leader - a man who either inspired total devotion or hatred, but never usually ambivalence.

Starmer’s challenge is that some in his own party - and indeed the wider electorate - does not yet appear to be overly inspired by or enamoured with him.

As one Labour MP put it: “It’s all about perception. He’s got to come across as interesting or likeable. But he’s just not that natural.”

They compared him with other leaders, who had their flaws but were still able to inspire a following.

“Take Blair - a lot of what he did was like bad acting, but he managed to wow people,” they said.

It’s been noted that in an attempt to make himself more relatable (he is after all a knight of the realm) Starmer has begun telling personal anecdotes about his childhood, including his father’s life as a toolmaker.

But for some, this is coming across as forced.

Then there is the question of whether Starmer inspires the level of loyalty needed for a leader. In the days leading up to party conference, there is already talk of manoeuvres by those who might fancy themselves as his successor.

“There was some hero worship for Ed, lots for Jeremy but there isn’t that for Keir. People like and respect him, but there isn’t that fondness for him,” one Labour MP said.

“Nick Brown [Labour’s former chief whip] would have thrown himself under a bus for Gordon Brown. No one will do that for Keir.”