Winning election more important than party unity, says Starmer as he prepares to set out vision for Britain

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Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

Sir Keir Starmer will unveil his vision for the “future of our country” on Wednesday after taking on the Labour Left at the party’s annual rally.

He will seek to speak to the nation after days of bitter clashes at the Brighton conference over internal party reforms including to leadership election rules.

“Last year, I had to give the whole speech down the barrel of a camera with one other person in the room, and no reaction from anyone,” he told the BBC on Tuesday, referring to his online conference address last year due to Covid restrictions.

“Tomorrow I’ll be in front of thousands of our members and supporters, and I’m so looking forward to that.

“This is an opportunity for me to set out where I think the future of our country lies, I haven’t had that opportunity yet and I’m really going to take it tomorrow.”

Labour Centrists at the annual conference are jubilant after party reforms were pushed through including over leadership election rules, even though they had to be watered down to win sufficient backing.

In contrast, Leftwingers are heavily critical of Sir Keir over the reforms, accusing him of sparking division and of failing to unveil enough policies to drive forward the party.

Sir Keir denied that he is leading a more divided Labour Party than ever after the split with the Left deepened when a shadow cabinet member dramatically quit mid-conference.

The Labour leader insisted winning elections is more important than unity as he said Andy McDonald was “wrong” to allege the divide has widened within the party since he took over from Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour leader was also refusing to reinstate the party whip to Mr Corbyn until he apologises for his controversial remarks in response to a report on anti-Semitism within the party.

Centrist MPs were dismissive of Mr Corbyn’s chances of winning his Islington North seat, standing as an independent against a Labour candidate.

They have also accused Mr McDonald of timing his resignation to upstage coverage of shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves’ speech.

Mr McDonald quit as shadow employment rights secretary after Sir Keir refused to back a £15-an-hour minimum wage, a move which was backed by party members on Wednesday.

Sir Keir denied he was happy to see the departure of Mr McDonald, the last ally of the former leader in his top team, and insisted he was incorrect to claim “our movement is more divided than ever”.

The Labour leader said: “He is wrong about that, but my focus is on how we get Labour into position to win a general election.”

He defended the “tough decisions to change our party”, which included changing the rules to mean any future leadership contender would need greater support from Labour MPs, in a move seen as an attempt to shut out radical challengers.

Sir Keir accepted “there will be some people who don’t agree with those changes” but urged critics to “abide by them”.

Asked what is most important to him, unity within the party or winning, he said: “Winning. Winning a general election.

“I didn’t come into politics to vote over and over again in Parliament and lose, and then tweet about it. I came into politics to go into government to change millions of lives for the better.”

Sir Keir has also angered the left by shelving Labour plans for the nationalisation of major energy firms, after committing to “common ownership” during the leadership campaign.

The Labour leader insisted common ownership and nationalisation are “worlds apart” and said the pledges he made to party members remain “values that I hold dear”.

“I never made a commitment to nationalisation, I made a commitment to common ownership,” he said.

“I stand by the principles and the values behind the pledges I made to our members, but the most important pledge I made was that I would turn it into a party that would be fit for government, capable of winning a General Election, I’m not going to be deflected from that.”

Mr Corbyn’s allies say the key move for reuniting the party is to reinstate the whip to the former leader, who has sat as an independent MP since October.

But Sir Keir said Mr Corbyn cannot return until after he apologises for saying anti-Semitism had been “drastically overstated for political reasons” in response to a damning report into the issue under his leadership.

“It has been going on for months and the ball is in Jeremy’s court,” said the leader, who took over the party in April last year.

“Jeremy was asked to apologise, to take down the post that caused the problem in the first place and to work with us.”

At a conference fringe event, Mr Corbyn said he had several conversations with Mr McDonald on Monday but denied they were part of a plot.

“If it had been a deep-laid Machiavellian plot to announce a resignation on a particular afternoon in Brighton, it would’ve leaked out weeks ago,” the MP, who had his Labour membership reinstated, said.

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