In a speech to the Progressive Britain conference on Saturday (13th May), Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer made references to former Labour leader and Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair by promising that the reforms that his planned reforms to the party under his leadership will be similar to New Labour’s Clause IV “on steroids”. Clause IV is a part of the Labour Party Rule Book, which establishes the Labour Party’s aims and values, and this has been a source of debate between party members spanning generations. Under Blair’s leadership in 1995, Clause IV was amended, and its calls for public ownership of industry was removed. Blair’s version of Clause IV has survived to this day, with the Clause written on the back of each Labour Party membership card. Starmer’s reference to this is significant because it highlights a further shift away from his left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, and a return towards the political centre seen in the New Labour years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This shift has been important for Labour. Under Corbyn’s leadership, the party lost two general elections, with the 2019 election resulting in Labour’s worst result since 1935. Meanwhile, under Starmer, Labour have been leading the Conservatives in national opinion polls since December 2021, with consistent double-digit leads for almost a year.
Since becoming Labour leader, Starmer’s distancing from Corbyn has been obvious. The party’s policy focus has shifted away from nationalisation, with a greater focus placed on economic growth and stability. Furthermore, the pro-Corbyn left wing of the party has largely been driven to the fringes, despite some criticism from within the party. Meanwhile, the antisemitism that plagued the Corbyn years has, for the most part, been driven out; with Corbyn himself being banned from standing as a Labour candidate at the next general election.
Another Blair-era theme that Starmer referred to was that of modernisation. His speech highlighted the fact that a potential Labour government would face numerous challenges such as climate change, struggling public services, and rapid technological changes. He used examples such as these to discuss the challenges and priorities of incoming Labour governments in 1945, 1964 and 1997, arguing that should Labour enter power in 2024, Labour would face a combination of all of those challenges. The takeaway from Starmer’s speech is clear, the years of his predecessor are now a relic of the past, and the goal is to enter government in a year’s time.
While the Labour Party appears to be uniting behind Starmer’s leadership, recent months for the Conservative Party have been incredibly difficult. The party is on their third leader in under a year, with Boris Johnson and Liz Truss being ousted by their own MPs. The aftermath of the local elections held earlier this month, which saw the Conservatives lose over a thousand local council seats and Labour becoming the largest party in local government for the first time since 2002, has demonstrated the clear divisions within the party. Speaking at a conference for the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), former Home Secretary, and long-term Boris Johnson supporter Priti Patel, directly blamed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for the local election results, arguing that Sunak was “presiding over the managed decline” of the Conservative Party. Another Johnson supporter, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Business Secretary, also spoke at the CDO. However, Rees-Mogg appeared to show support, if somewhat reluctant, for the Prime Minister, arguing that it would look “absurd” if the party ousted yet another party leader before the next election, and that the Conservatives would be “toast” if they were to change leader once again.
More enthusiastic support for Sunak’s leadership came from Energy Secretary Grant Shapps. Shapps is one of Sunak’s most prominent allies and while on the Sunday morning media round, he claimed that the Conservatives are still “buzzing with ideas” and urged the public to support the Prime Minister’s policy agenda. However, it is impossible to deny that these are challenging times for the Conservative Party, and having spent the last thirteen years in government, they are rapidly running out of time to improve their fortunes before the next election.
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