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25 September 2022

Keir Starmer shows off Labour’s harmony with national anthem

Singing “God Save the King” to open Labour conference was a risk, but the trouble-free rendition demonstrated the leader’s control of the party.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Kwasi Kwarteng was ridiculed in the Commons on Friday when he claimed his tax-slashing mini-Budget marked a “new era” for the Tories. The Chancellor’s display of chutzpah jarred with the glaringly obvious: the Conservatives have been in power for 12 years.

Fast-forward two days to the Labour Party conference in Liverpool and it appears Keir Starmer is the one who can credibly lay claim to presiding over a “new era”.

Plans for the Labour leader to open the conference with a tribute to Queen Elizabeth II were met with raised eyebrows. Starmer’s speech in 2021 was accompanied by a cacophony of boos as party members still loyal to Jeremy Corbyn held up red cards to signal their displeasure with the leader and, in view of Labour’s lively republican strain, one senior aide warned Starmer that this year he could have to use his tribute to appeal to members “not to boo” if they did not wish to join in with “God Save the King”.

Starmer judged no such caution was necessary and what followed was a remarkable show of unity in the conference hall. A minute’s silence was strictly observed by delegates and applause followed the singing of the national anthem, with no boos or heckles. It demonstrated not only respect for the Queen among Labour members but loyalty to Starmer – something he could not have hoped for 12 months ago.

No Labour member can have doubted Corbyn’s view. In an interview with the BBC before the conference the former leader described the plan for the tribute as “very, very odd” and “excessively nationalist”. That members chose not to take his cue underlines, perhaps, a growing hunger for power. Lack of patriotism was a criticism repeatedly levelled at Corbyn’s Labour, particularly among Brexit voters in the Red Wall. Starmer cannot win the general election due in 2024 without convincing those voters that Labour has changed.

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“So conference, as we enter a new era, let’s commit to honouring the late Queen’s memory,” Starmer said in his tribute. “Let’s turn our collar up and face the storm, keep alive the spirit of public service she embodied and let it drive us towards a better future.”

A disciplined message in the conference hall does not mean Starmer has finished the job of uniting the party. Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester and pretender to the throne, appears determined to be a thorn in Starmer’s side.

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Spoken of by many on the left as Labour’s next leader, Burnham has, so far, defied the leader by backing proportional representation and calling for Labour to reverse the basic rate tax cut. He is expected to appear at 18 fringe events and a number of shadow frontbenchers privately fume at what they see as his naked ambition.

One shadow frontbencher told the New Statesman: “He decided to give up on being an MP when the going got tough so we don’t need to hear his latest musings on why he’s so great. He knows fine well what he’s doing and it’s not welcome.”

While Starmer loyalists in the Parliamentary Labour Party are aghast, however, Labour strategists are banking on the news bulletins beaming clips of the Queen tribute and, for now, are relaxed about the mayor causing trouble.

[See also: Who’s who in Keir Starmer’s team?]