BRIGHTON, England — It’s the first in-person Labour conference since Keir Starmer became the party’s leader. But he’s struggling to hog the limelight.
As the party’s annual gathering heads into its third day, Starmer has been rocked by the resignation of a prominent left-winger from his top team. And his thunder was already being stolen by two of the opposition party’s other big characters: Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, and Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester.
Rayner dominated headlines over the weekend after referring to the governing Tories as “scum” at a fringe event — drawing howls of outrage from prominent Conservatives, who called on her to apologize. She’s refused to do so — leaving Starmer to squirm and say he would “talk to her later.”
The deputy leader made front pages again on Monday, pictured pausing for a cigarette outside the conference venue. She looked every bit the most headstrong and popular girl in class, a sharp contrast to Starmer’s distinctly geeky vibes.
Stealing attention in his own way was Burnham, who has become something of a star seafront attraction. That may have something to do with the fact that, unlike most other senior politicians here, he’s actually in power.
Burnham earned the nickname “King of the North” last year after he took the government to task over tougher COVID rules in the region he represents. Asked about that moniker at a fringe event, he quipped: “I’ve not quite gathered the troops at the M6 Knutsford services, but the day may come if they don’t sort out this leveling up thing.”
Just to be helpful to Starmer, Burnham then told the BBC: “The leader and the shadow Cabinet need to connect with the public — we can’t afford to leave Brighton without having done that.”
And, at a packed panel discussion on Monday, he declared politics “needs more doers rather than sayers” — another apparent veiled criticism of the leadership. If that wasn’t enough, he described the appointment of Tory Cabinet minister Michael Gove as “good news” for Boris Johnson’s flagship ‘leveling up’ domestic agenda — not quite the Labour line.
One Conservative MP from the North West said his cohort sees Burnham as “more of a threat” than Starmer, as “the King in the North persona created last year still resonates and we saw the Tories stall in the local elections in Greater Manchester — a lot of that was down to Burnham being on the ballot.”
James Frith, an ex-Labour MP who lost his seat in 2019, said of Rayner and Burnham: “It’s fair to say that they’ve both got some swagger that I’d like to see from Keir.”
Laura Pidcock, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee and an ally of left-wing former leader Jeremy Corbyn, told the BBC of Starmer: “I want him to be angry about what is happening to working class people and I just don’t feel that … We want to see anger.”
Allies of Starmer are playing it cool. One shadow Cabinet aide said criticisms like Pidcock’s were “just noise,” and described the mood in Starmer’s team as one of “elation” at having successfully pushed through a raft of changes to internal party rules this weekend.
On Sunday, conference delegates backed reforms that will give MPs more of a say in choosing future party leaders and make it harder for rank-and-file party members to deselect Labour parliamentarians.
Both changes were billed as turning the page on the Corbyn era, which in 2019 saw Labour sink to its worst electoral performance since the 1930s. The rule tweaks will have much more far-reaching consequences for Labour, Starmer’s allies say, than snappy soundbites at fringe events.
‘More divided than ever’
Yet anger among Corbyn allies isn’t just resulting in noise. In an excoriating resignation letter Monday, Shadow Employment Rights Secretary Andy McDonald accused Starmer of breaking his promises to members and failing to unite the opposition movement.
“I joined your frontbench team on the basis of your pledges that you made in the leadership campaign to bring unity within the party and maintain our commitment to socialist policies,” he wrote. “After 18 months of your leadership, our movement is more divided than ever and the pledges that you made to the membership are not being honored.”
It shows the tricky balancing act Starmer — who decisively won the leadership on a left-wing platform — faces in trying to move on from the Corbyn era while also convincing voters he’s a man of his word.
For now, delegates seem prepared to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt, with one commenting that Burnham, who stood unsuccessfully for the leadership in 2015, has “already had his go” and describing Rayner’s language as “unsuitable.” But several admitted they would like to see Starmer “go on the offensive” more often.
Starmer has appeared uncomfortable on stage at times, awkwardly sharing jokes with Rayner as they make a show of unity. But his big moment is yet to come: on Wednesday he will close the conference with his set-piece speech, a chance for the opposition leader to make his mark beyond Brighton.
The party faithful are together for the first time in two years, and the Conservatives are vulnerable to attack as the U.K. faces supply chain snags and rising energy bills.
A Labour Party official insisted the rule changes will allow the opposition to become “more outward-looking than ever.” On Wednesday, the spotlight’s Starmer’s for the taking — if he wants it.