Coronavirus has saved Keir Starmer from a fractious Labour conference

It took Neil Kinnock seven years to take back control of the party from the Bennites in the 1980s – the pandemic has helped seal Starmer’s ascendancy over his party in just five months

John Rentoul
Saturday 19 September 2020 13:30 BST
Keir Starmer says government made mistakes in coronavirus response

The Corbynites are in the descendant in the Labour Party now. The collapse of what I refuse to call the hard left machine has been as surprising as it has been complete. I refuse to call them the hard left because, in my humble opinion, they are neither hard nor left wing, but whatever you call them, they aren’t there any more. Keir Starmer is lord of all he surveys.  

Momentum’s grip on the party was never as tight as it seemed. As with all so-called left-wing factions everywhere, they were split, with the only thing holding their “project” together being the person of Jeremy Corbyn himself. I’m not good at predicting politics, and I didn’t see him coming, but I certainly saw him going. I said that once he had ceased to be leader, that would be the end of it. Whatever came afterwards would be very different.  

But I didn’t think the leader’s faction would be eclipsed so quickly. No one could have foreseen the way in which coronavirus has helped Starmer assert his authority. It helped, first, by changing the subject. Suddenly, all the questions about how radical Labour’s economic policy would be were swept aside by a Conservative government directly employing much of the private sector workforce.  

As Labour gathers in cyberspace for its Connected event, replacing its annual conference that would be happening in Liverpool this weekend, other ways in which the pandemic has helped Starmer are becoming evident.  

No conference means no votes. It means no fiery denunciations from the rostrum of the witch-hunt against Rebecca Long-Bailey. No singing of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. No waving Palestinian flags. No fringe meetings condemning Starmer for selling out the workers.  

Above all, there is no chance for the great battle among Starmer’s opponents between those, such as John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, who argue that they should be supportive of the leader “because the most important thing for the left now is not to allow itself to be portrayed as oppositionists, shouting from the sidelines”, and those, such as Howard Beckett, one of many candidates to succeed Len McCluskey as leader of Unite the union, who want to condemn Starmer for trying, with Boris Johnson, to “dump the pandemic fallout on the working class”. In a physical conference, this debate would dominate media coverage; online it has hardly been noticed.  

The lockdown has had a remarkable effect in suppressing grassroots activism for most of this year. One veteran activist tells me that “Momentum has been unable to organise, plot and gossip” in local parties, because so much of that depends on meeting each other in person. Meanwhile, Labour people who had been driven away from meetings by the sectarians have been re-engaging in constructive online activism.  

It helps that Labour people tend to take the rules on social distancing seriously, whereas libertarian Conservatives who are furious with their own leadership feel under no such constraint. That applies above all in parliament, the one place where (socially distanced) meeting, gossiping and plotting is still going on. But most Labour MPs are supportive of Starmer, and the Parliamentary Labour Party was one of the centres of power that the Corbynites never came close to taking over.  

Matt Hancock squirms as Keir Starmer demolishes his coronavirus strategy in PMQs

It is the Tory side that is split, and you can see why the prime minister was happy to have parliament in recess for six weeks over the summer. Now they are back, and the anti-lockdowners are agitating against him, as are the Brexit-worriers, even including the Leave-voting lords Howard and Lamont. No wonder Johnson was in the tea room this week, trying to jolly the troops.  

With Labour conference reduced to a few speeches on Zoom – no one can heckle, or walk out, or hold up a placard – Starmer’s allies can concentrate on the postal ballot for seats on the party’s national executive. For the first time this year, they are being allocated by proportional representation to the rival slates, and “Labour to Win”, the Starmer-loyalist slate, is likely to secure at least three of the nine seats representing grassroots party members.  

It took Neil Kinnock seven years to take back control of the party from the Bennites in the 1980s. The pandemic has helped seal Starmer’s ascendancy over his party in just five months.

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