Fair to say the Labour party conference hadn’t got off to the start Keir Starmer had hoped for. First, his 12,000-word “See me, feel me, touch me” appeal to the nation had been widely ignored. Which many of us who had made the mistake of reading it thought was much the best response. Anything to escape the repetition, the platitudes and the cliches. It wasn’t so much “The Road Ahead” that was off-putting as “The Page Ahead”.
Then there had been the party infighting, all of which had been totally avoidable. The Tories had teed up the Labour shindig in Brighton perfectly. First, rising energy prices and the cost of living. Then there had been the government bailing out a fertiliser manufacturer to protect the nation’s supply of carbon dioxide, just when it was telling the rest of the world to reduce its CO2 emissions. Best of all, there had been Grant Shapps urging the public not to panic-buy petrol and diesel. Predictably, most garage forecourts were now running on fumes as people have long since learned to do the opposite of everything the transport secretary says.
But Labour are never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so Starmer had chosen instead to turn the focus to changes in the party rules making it harder for it ever to elect another Jeremy Corbyn as leader. A mistake on two counts. One, he hadn’t bothered to consult the unions and had forgotten the first rule of politics: never call a vote to which you don’t know the result. Two, when you’re trying to make an impression at your first non-virtual conference as leader, it probably isn’t the time to let the country know you are thinking about who will be your successor.
So rather than enjoying himself during the traditional leader interview with Andrew Marr on the Sunday morning of the party conference, Starmer cut a rather awkward, defensive figure. This should have been his chance to shine – to trash the Tories for their recent record – but instead he looked edgy, his foot twitching nervously.
He still doesn’t dare mention Brexit – not even to spell out the difference between Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit and the softer versions that were on offer – so he was unable to point out the absurdity of the mess the government had got itself into over lorry driver shortages. Shapps’s new idiocy is that Brexit has given us the power to take back control over the failures of Brexit. Only someone as dim as Grant could say that with a straight face.
Things never really improved after that. Starmer made a feeble effort to explain why, when he had said the big six energy companies should be put in common ownership in his leadership manifesto, he had never for a moment thought that people might infer that Labour intended to nationalise them. And his efforts to distance himself from Angela Rayner’s “Tory scum” remarks sounded more like a slapdown than an attempt to defuse the situation. I guess he hasn’t got a dinner arranged with his deputy leader.
Starmer was also forced to insist that his watered-down plans for future leadership elections were the ones he had wanted all along. Those other ones he put forward last week had never really existed. They were non-proposals. It’s not just the government that makes use of doublethink these days. Still, as Marr and Starmer did observe, the public did seem to prefer showmen with whom lying is priced in. So maybe what Keir really needs to do is just become a better liar.
Away from the TV studios, most shadow ministers and delegates appeared to be enjoying themselves rather more. The shadow secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy, Ed Miliband was down to speak for just five minutes, but did a full 15-minute routine and went down a storm, possibly because he still sounds keen on renationalising energy companies. Unlike his last speech to conference, where he tried to memorise his leader’s speech and ended up forgetting the bit where Thelma and Louise asked him about the deficit, Ed wisely stuck firmly to the Autocue.
Most of the real fun, though, was to be found on the fringe. The pro-EU meeting – one of the few places where you will hear Brexit mentioned – opened with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. A Labour List meeting paid tribute to Ruth Smeeth, who had lost her seat, while completely ignoring another ex-MP, Gareth Snell, who was standing right next to her. You win some …
But for top entertainment, it was hard to beat the Momentum-run The World Transformed, where Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on climate change was interrupted by his own brother. Piers started ranting about there being no such thing as man-made climate change while handing out anti-vax leaflets and was thrown out of the venue. Jezza and Piers make quite the double act. Hopefully they will be appearing together all week.
Back in the main hall, the changes in the leadership election rules that Starmer had definitely wanted more than the ones he originally wanted – cross his heart, hope to die – were being debated. And any sense of fraternity and solidarity was long forgotten as the argument grew increasingly polarised. Keir looked on from the stage impassively. Even though the debate would go to a card ballot, he knew the numbers were on his side. Just a shame that the lasting image of the first day of conference was of a party split. Still, tomorrow was another day. Maybe then he would feel the love.