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Starmer wants to move Labour to the centre, but can’t bring himself to say it

Written by on 28/09/2021

It’s 18 months since Sir Keir Starmer took over as Labour leader with a not-so-subtle slogan that the party was “under new leadership”.

But recent election results and polling suggests telling the public isn’t enough. That’s why this week’s Labour conference is a make-or-break moment for Sir Keir as he searches for some much-needed momentum.

He knows it too. When we sat down for an interview in Brighton he was clear that the battles he’s been fighting internally over rule changes have been tough but entirely necessary.

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Starmer refuses to say if he’s moving Labour to centre

Follow the latest updates from our political team live from the Labour conference

This conference has been, in his own words, a “show moment”. “I’ve been saying we need to change – now we’ve done it,” he told me.

He said new rules to make it harder for left wingers to make it on to the leadership ballot and harder for members to de-select MPs are “profound”, and the direction in which he is moving the Labour party is plain to see.

A leader who said he wanted to unify the party, not seemingly relaxed about division and discord.

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This has been a conference that has been overshadowed by Jeremy Corbyn campaigning against Sir Keir from the sidelines.

And the left have been staging a rearguard action to disrupt the Starmer rebranding with the dramatic resignation of the last Corbynite shadow cabinet minister, Andy McDonald, on Monday.

On camera, Sir Keir insisted that he was “not happy” to see Mr McDonald go, but that isn’t what his allies say in the conference bars.

They take the view that the “deliberate” disruption from the left shows the party that change is happening.

Seeing the back of Mr McDonald on the same day that Dame Louise Ellman, who quit not just as an MP but a party member, announced that she is rejoining Labour is, in the words of one Starmer ally, “a good day”.

For a party that was for four years led by the Labour left, Sir Keir is intent this week to show his delegates and the public he is taking Labour back to the centre ground.

“I want to move the party so we can focus on issues that matter,” he said.

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Party conferences: What’s the point?

But Sir Keir is taking his “show not tell” position quite literally when it comes to admitting that is his plan.

I asked him half a dozen times in our interview if he was moving from “Corbyn left” to “Starmer centre” in a bid to bring voters back into the fold, and he simply wouldn’t answer.

“I’m moving it from a party that looks inward to a party that looks outward, I’m moving it from a party that looks backwards to a party that looks forward,” the Labour leader said.

This is, for Sir Keir, what this week is about; finally trying to put the Corbyn years to bed and change the party’s rules in order to make sure another variant of it can’t return.

Sir Keir is clear what the victory means to him – the moment where he can consign the Labour left’s leadership of the party to the past.

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to members of the media during the party's annual conference, in Brighton, Britain, September 27, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Image: This week’s Labour conference is a make-or-break moment for Sir Keir

But as for voters, are internal rule changes really enough to convince the country that Labour has changed?

Sir Keir could have perhaps made that case with a bold Tony Blair-style clause four moment rebrand.

Both leaders share similarities. They both sat through four election losses and know the party needs to shift towards the centre to win again.

But if Sir Keir is too timid to really spell it out, he can’t expect voters to read between the lines.

 Sky News

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