Keir Starmer failed to score a Neil Kinnock “moment” at Labour conference where he moved the party back into the mainstream, Michael Gove has said.
The levelling up secretary said the Labour Party did not have the “confrontation” it needed to shift the party away from its “preoccupations” and on to the concerns of ordinary people.
Instead, he said it remained wedded to the politics of Titania McGrath – a reference to the satirical and fictional character that parodies the left.
Speaking at a fringe event at Tory Party conference in Manchester, Gove said the underlying problem faced by the opposition was that it was no longer the party of working people and instead represented “academics and Guardian leader writers”.
“One thing I will say is that the underlying problem I think the Labour Party has is that it’s no longer genuinely the party of working people,” Gove said.
In the lead up to Labour conference, much of the attention was focused on Starmer’s decision to change the rules around running for the leadership and MP Rosie Duffield’s decision to stay away from conference over her views on transgender rights.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner also caused controversy with comments she made at a late-night fringe event, in which she said the Conservatives were a “bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute vile… banana republic, vile, nasty, Etonian… piece of scum”.
Gove accused Labour of paying too much attention to pressure groups whose ideas were “dear to the hearts of those in university common rooms and in low-circulation newspaper editorial discussions”.
“Those ideas are front and centre and in the thinking of far too many people in the Labour Party, and that has created a gulf and a distance,” he said.
Last week Starmer gave his first in-person speech in Brighton in which he sought to call curtains on the Jeremy Corbyn era and show that the party was serious about winning power.
Starmer was also greeted with refrains such as “Where’s Peter Mandleson” and “free Julian Assange”.
In response, Starmer asked: “Shouting slogans or changing lives?” – winning plaudits from some who interpreted it as a sign he was serious about taking on the disruptors.
But Gove said that while it was clear Starmer wanted to break with Corbyn, there wasn’t the “electric crackle” in the room reminiscent of past Labour conferences, such as when former Labour leader Kinnock took on Militant.
“There wasn’t the confrontation with some of the Labour Party’s current preoccupations that I would have expected from a leader who was trying to change the party,” he said.
“There wasn’t that moment that you had in 1985 with Neil Kinnock and that you had when Tony Blair said they were going to change clause four, when you got the sense there was an electric crackle in the room because he was taking on the people who’d held them back.”
He added: “The Labour party spent quite a lot of time debating stuff which was very...it was almost sort of Titania McGrath at some points.”
But Gove defended Rayner for calling the Tories “scum”, saying: “I like Angela Rayner...anyone can make a mistake”, and it was “late at night”.