UK’s Labour leader urges party unity to seize power from Johnson

UK’s Labour leader urges party unity to seize power from Johnson
People watch Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speak at Britain's Labour Party annual conference in Brighton, Britain, September 29, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 30 September 2021

UK’s Labour leader urges party unity to seize power from Johnson

UK’s Labour leader urges party unity to seize power from Johnson
  • Starmer believes Labour can win back traditional working-class supporters in northern England who left the party in droves two years ago

BRIGHTON: Keir Starmer on Wednesday vowed to revitalize the election prospects of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, seeking to unite warring factions and broaden its public appeal with his first in-person speech since taking charge last year.

Starmer used the address to Labour’s rank-and-file to try to rebuild its fortunes, after the party suffered its worst defeat since the 1930s at the last general election under his socialist predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

But he faces the unenviable task of unifying a party riven by internal factions and hard-left opposition to his leadership, even as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government battles a damaging fuel supply crisis.

Starmer sought to introduce himself to voters as a credible alternative to Johnson’s Conservatives, insisting Labour can win back traditional working-class supporters in northern England who left the party in droves two years ago.

“The voters that thought we were unpatriotic or irresponsible, or that we looked down on them, I say these simple but powerful words: we will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government,” he pledged.

Labour’s 2019 program was widely derided as an undeliverable left-wing wish-list, which alongside Corbyn’s lack of broader popularity, was blamed for contributing to its poor showing at the polls.

The Conservatives thrashed Labour in December 2019 on a pledge to “get Brexit done” and “level up” left-behind regions, and Johnson has since enjoyed high popularity ratings despite the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impact.

Turmoil at the petrol pumps, coming on top of an energy supply crisis, have been blamed on Britain’s departure from the European Union, leaving the country short of workers in various key sectors.

Labour’s annual conference was seen as a way to move beyond internal squabbles and highlight perceived Tory failings, but its opening days were consumed by Starmer’s eventually successful attempts to ram through internal reforms.

While his team has taken heart from the weekend election win of Labour’s SPD sister party in Germany, the infighting and a high-profile resignation from his frontbench team upset a show of unity in the seaside town of Brighton.

Starmer tried to turn attention Wednesday back on Johnson’s under-fire administration.

“Level up? You can’t even fill up,” he said to rapturous applause and cheers, referring to Johnson’s flagship domestic policy.

“We have a fuel crisis, a pay crisis, a goods crisis, and a cost of living crisis, all at the same time,” he added.

“Either get a grip, or get out of the way, let us step up and clear up this mess.”

The conference has laid bare the scale of the challenge facing Starmer uniting Labour, as he faced heckles and interruptions throughout his more than hour-long speech.

Ahead of the address, Owen Jones, a left-wing activist and commentator, said the only words he wanted to hear from him were “I resign.”

“Whatever my differences with (Tony Blair’s) New Labour, in the ‘90s they hammered the Tories,” Jones told AFP, adding Starmer would “go down as the worst leader in the history of the Labour party”.