Sir Keir Starmer visit to Portsmouth

‘Unity, competence and ambition’ key to Labour’s electability

Nine months into Keir Starmer’s leadership, the Fabian Society online conference was an important opportunity to draw conclusions on the Labour team and their direction.

The Fabian gathering, which took place last weekend, was the largest public showcase for the Labour shadow cabinet since September’s virtual conference season. In all, 15 members of the Labour top team spoke, with Keir Starmer making his own keynote address on foreign policy.

Over the two-day conference, the shadow cabinet speeches and interviews revealed a striking unity of purpose and tone. It was clear that this is a team that feels like a team: something that should not be remarkable but has so rarely been true of the Labour frontbench. It is the most united, collegiate Labour leadership in 20 years.

The presentations also revealed a shadow cabinet that is values-driven but with a practical bent. Both Lisa Nandy and Nick Thomas-Symonds gave speeches that were steeped in the principles and heritage of the left, but hard-headed about the challenges they would face as foreign and home secretaries. These are shadow ministers who are equally wary of the rudderless managerialism of new Labour, when at its most centrist, and the utopian excesses of the party’s recent pipedreams.

This posture marks a return to the Fabianism that has animated Labour politics so often during its proud history. The frontbench’s focus is on detail, evidence and practicality, but without ever sacrificing Labour’s transformative ambition to make Britain and the world fairer and greener.

More than half the shadow cabinet are Fabian members. The approach they take was typified at the weekend by the remarks of Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green, who is a former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group and chair of the Fabian Society. She made it clear that her priority is to reduce educational inequality and child poverty fast, rather than getting bogged down in school reorganisation or dismantling private school privilege.

Starmer’s frontbench looked like a team of grown-ups who pass the competence test. The polls already show that voters can imagine Starmer as a prime minister, but the team around him also looked like secretaries of state in waiting. Across every portfolio, the shadow cabinet speakers had a clarity of purpose and grip on detail that compared favourably with their opposite numbers in power.

The conference also showed how the Labour team is at one in their complete focus on winning power. The scars of Labour’s 2019 defeat run deep, and the shadow ministers speaking made it clear that every choice they make will be based on how to rebuild relationships with voters and win. Policies and positions that do not serve that purpose will not see the light of day before 2024.

Starmer’s Labour understands the broad coalition of support they need to assemble. There was much talk of reconnecting with lost working-class seats, but not at the expense of the party’s values or urban voters. Lisa Nandy spoke with eloquence of how Joe Biden had reassured and connected in the American rustbelt without sacrificing his support for liberal causes. The goal is to side-step ‘culture war’ politics.

The Fabian conference revealed a frontbench that is sick of factionalism and has no desire to pick fights with the left of the party. This was most eloquently put by Angela Rayner, who paid tribute to the achievements of every Labour leader in her lifetime. Asked what she hoped for in a year’s time, she did not choose a stonking lead for Labour in the opinion polls, but an end to internal strife: ‘for everybody in the Labour Party to be talking positively about the Labour Party, with a smile on their face saying “I’m part of a great movement and we’re doing great things”.

The Labour party has a mountain to climb if it is to win back national power. On that journey, unity within the party will be necessary but not sufficient. But with a frontbench team focused on unity, competence, ambition and electability, the building blocks for a return to power are there. With a big set of elections this May, we will soon discover whether voters have started to take note.