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It was at the Devon seaside that Keir Starmer finished his first draft of the speech that is set to be the most important moment of his political career to date. The Labour leader was ostensibly on holiday when he first rang aides to talk through his big pitch, his family yelling at him in the background, telling him to hurry up for their day out.
It is unsurprising that the Labour leader feels so much is at stake as he returns to the coast, this time in Brighton, for his first in-person Labour conference as leader.
In the Guardian’s conversations with five shadow cabinet ministers, plus senior aides, party staff, MPs and trade unionists, they reveal how much they feel is riding on this moment – and the battle in shadow cabinet over whether to go “Biden big” (the US president unveiled a multitrillion-dollar recovery plan this year) or preach fiscal responsibility at a moment of economic turmoil.
Next week is a moment that many of his allies believe he can seize, but there are also some who say his leadership will be in grave peril if he does not – and that Starmer is rapidly losing faith and goodwill.
Starmer began the week with a 35-page opus on his political philosophy, published by the Fabian Society and designed to answer to those critics who say they do not know what he stands for.
That will be the launchpad for his speech on Wednesday, one that will emphasise core commitments on secure work, community and responsibility. Aides say he will make a definitive break with the theme of his last conference speech, where he said Labour “deserved to lose”. Senior figures believe “the time for self-flagellation is now over”.
The writing team, which has been kept tight, includes Tony Blair’s speechwriter, Phil Collins, and Starmer’s close aides Claire Ainsley, Deborah Mattinson and Paul Ovenden. “But it is very much Keir,” one said.
Starmer has been rehearsing his speech on stage at London’s Trafalgar Studios, joking with staff there that if he hung around long enough he could take part in the Jersey Boys matinee.
Party figures have been brainstorming to find ways to make the conference a big moment that will translate to the wider public. One official claimed there had been early inquiries about whether footballers like Marcus Rashford and other celebrities could be invited to watch the speech, though others denied this, saying “it doesn’t feel very Keir”.
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said: “I think most people across the country are now in a place where they want to see real, transformative change. They want Britain to play a part in the world, stand up for their values, a prime minister they trust to make decisions in the national interest. I think most people in the party are there. We now have a week where we can show the country that is the case.”
While Starmer’s advisers want to show the party is turning a corner, however, the conference looks set to be dominated by factional rows over internal rule changes. Starmer will attempt to bring a return of the electoral college, which gives MPs more power to choose party leaders and has enraged the party’s left.
“The focus is on all the wrong things,” said the former shadow cabinet minister Richard Burgon. “People across the country in this moment of crisis are looking to the Labour party, but this conference is already looking like a missed opportunity.”
Starmer’s allies have concerns, too. “If I were Keir, I would be very seriously questioning the motivations of the people who are pushing this,” a senior MP said. “The right of the party have their doubts about him too. This makes it safer to replace him without risking a left-wing winner again. Why is he raising the spectre of his own departure?”
Shadow cabinet ministers are feeling the pressure – even without what many view as an unnecessary, internecine war. “Frankly the thing that matters most is the speech, it’s the moment where we work out if he can relate to the country or if he can’t,” one said. Another was even blunter about what is at stake: “If Keir fails to seize the moment then there will be alarm.”
One colleague raised the possibility of a leadership challenge, saying that an unlucky combination of a disastrous conference and one or two shock byelection losses could see “things … start to snowball out of control very quickly”.
“Whether anyone is actually properly organising against him is another question. But the problem is that the majority view among the [parliamentary Labour party] is concern,” they said. “In truth, I am also starting to panic a bit.”
Starmer’s relatively recent entry into politics makes him more vulnerable. “Keir does not have a pretorian guard,” one shadow cabinet minister said. “And I think MPs feel unable to defend him on the airwaves sometimes because they are unsure of the party’s position on key issues.”
Another senior Labour staffer complained: “There have been constant relaunches and visions – how many times? – briefed since last year. The speech in February was billed as the big moment and then the big idea was Covid bonds. That’s when people felt their doubts were being realised.”
MPs on all wings of the party expressed a desire for Starmer to set out the party’s specific position on key issues – and frustration at perceived paralysis in the last six months.
“The moment has arrived to stop kicking the can down the road – not just on big issues like social care and tax and the Green New Deal and the energy crisis – but also on other things that matter where it looks like Labour doesn’t even have a clue, such as trans rights and even Jeremy [Corbyn’s] suspension” one said.
If everything goes wrong in Brighton, there is talk of two specific threats to Starmer, though neither has any real path to an imminent challenge. The first is Andy Burnham, the popular mayor of Greater Manchester who has made it clear he wants the job. “He is a huge electoral asset in the north-west with his own power base and loyal MPs,” one shadow minister said. But Burnham cannot launch a challenge because he is not an MP.
The other is Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, a plain-speaking former care worker who also has a loyal coterie of friendly MPs. But relations have improved between the leader and his deputy since a bitter split after an attempted demotion in the wake of the disastrous Hartlepool byelection.
Their advisers still often do not see eye-to-eye on strategy, but the pair frequently have lunch and their teams coalesced at Rayner’s flat to prepare her for prime minister’s questions against Dominic Raab on Wednesday.
Despite the gripes, most shadow cabinet ministers and MPs are insistent they retain their faith in Starmer even if they want to see him move up a gear. “Keir has a huge asset in that he looks like a prime minister in a way that Ed [Miliband] and Jeremy [Corbyn] never did,” a shadow cabinet minister said.
Though Starmer’s Fabian essay started life in his notebook, scribbled in pen and paper on trains as he toured constituencies this summer, Ovenden and Ainsley helped bring it to fruition. Yet even over 35 pages and 12,500 words, there is a battle at the heart of the party that the article does not quite answer – how big should Labour go?
Among some senior shadow cabinet ministers, like Rayner and Miliband, there is a desire for Labour to go “Biden bold” and embrace significant change. “Corbyn without the madness” as one shadow cabinet minister put it.
“Keir has no choice but to go bold – the US is going bold and their economy is growing,” a shadow cabinet minister said. “The UK will not be an international economic outlier if it decides to spend big.”
Many in the party want to see Starmer respond with a vision of how to tackle the impending winter crisis – empty supermarket shelves, soaring energy bills, an embattled NHS and cuts to universal credit. “Keir must be the voice of the British people on this,” the shadow minister said.
Rayner’s own speech will draw a link between Labour’s 1945 manifesto, Let Us Face the Future, and post-Covid Britain, and set out an ambition to fundamentally change the world of work.
But there are also influential voices in the shadow cabinet, like Rachel Reeves and the party chair, Anneliese Dodds, who believe the party must pay attention to grave public concerns about the state of the British economy.
Though Starmer’s advisers say his political instinct is for a big economic offer by the time of the next election, his Fabian essay repeatedly emphasises responsibility and restraint.
Members of the backbench Socialist Campaign Group of MPs were sharing a screen grab of the essay on WhatsApp on Wednesday night, underlining where Starmer said he wanted “an effective partnership between state and private sectors” and listed “health” as one of its areas.
“I think if Keir carries on down this course, he runs the risk of being recorded in history as a pound-shop Neil Kinnock,” Burgon said. “This talk of a ‘contribution country’ is deeply uninspiring.”
Even if Starmer exceeds the expectations of MPs, the Labour conference could still be dominated by internal rows of his own making.
Senior figures in Unite feel particularly betrayed by the return to previous leadership election rules. On Monday, Starmer met the union’s new general secretary, Sharon Graham, who told him cordially she could not attend conference because of demanding industrial disputes. Starmer was understanding, but it is understood the topic of Labour rule changes was never raised. That night, the news started to leak.
Starmer’s allies insist the idea to change internal party rules is all his own – but he has come under pressure from members of Labour’s centrist wing who believe there has been mass change at constituency-party level which has allowed the election of pro-Starmer delegates to the Labour conference. Momentum say pro-Starmer organisers have done their sums wrong and there will be a left majority.
Gaya Sriskanthan, Momentum’s co-chair, said many activists, whatever their bent, felt betrayed by the leadership’s pursuit of rule change and urged Starmer to refocus on issues that would inspire younger members.
“He keeps talking about listening to the country but then he never says anything of substance, and then he refuses to listen to the membership as well – so who is he listening to?” she said. “We have serious, transformative policies like the Green New Deal being brought to conference. Motions on housing, the NHS, which are issues people care about. He should be spending more time and energy demonstrating that he cares about them.”
Sources close to Starmer fiercely reject claims of political naivety. “I hate it when people say he’s this political noob; he became leader less than five years after being elected to parliament,” one aide said. “What he believes is Labour must turn outwards. Changing these rules – particularly making it harder to deselect MPs – means we can focus properly on the voters.”
There are other major areas of dispute: a wing of the membership still angry at Corbyn’s suspension and a chance for that to bubble over when the former leader speaks at Momentum’s fringe conference.
There is also considerable disquiet in the party over a perceived lack of vocal support for trans rights and the conduct of the MP Rosie Duffield, whom some have accused of transphobia. Duffield has said she feels unable to attend her own party’s conference because of threats.
For many MPs, aides and even members, stepping into the conference this weekend after almost two years will feel like stepping into a great unknown. “We don’t really know what the mood of the party is going to be like,” one shadow cabinet minister said. “My sense is members are anxious, but fundamentally very loyal to the leader, even when they haven’t voted for him.”
Nandy said she was optimistic that a coming together of Labour activists, MPs and campaigners at the Brighton seaside would be a turning point. “It’s so important that people get excited about Labour again. Keir wants to enthuse people,” she said. “Most people join the party because they want to change the world. We have to harness that and I think it can be done.”
Another said the prize of a successful conference would be an enormous boost to party morale – to members and to MPs, that could translate into momentum for the autumn. “We could potentially be a much better place at the end of conference than people think,” they said.