Robert Peston: Sir Keir Starmer gives Labour MPs their party back

Labour leader Keir Starmer. Credit: PA

Hello from a sunny, blustery Brighton, where there has been an important historical shift at the Labour Party’s conference, a counter-revolution no less.

Until this week, and in the five years of Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendancy, conference was a pact between the leader - Corbyn - and the members, the foot soldiers, to marginalise and even humiliate a majority of Labour MPs.

There was no doubt where sovereignty and power in Labour lay.

Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and current Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer. Credit: PA

And it was with a leadership and membership well to the left of most MPs.

Today, the MPs have got their party back.

For the first time in years, it is possible to talk to them and learn where their party is heading, rather than simply counselling them that if they are deselected by members there’s a possible life beyond Westminster.

This transfer of power is the result of a pact between Keir Starmer and the big trade unions - their critics would call it Faustian - which

  • 1) makes it harder for members to throw out sitting MPs

  • 2) reduces the ability of left-wing entryists to determine a leadership election

  • 3) gives far more power to MPs over the choice of candidates in a leadership election

  • 4) massively toughens up disciplinary procedures against anti-Semites and other toxic bigots

Starmer has made a calculation that winning an election means replacing the de facto direct democracy of the Corbyn years with a more traditional form of British representative democracy, in which the party leader and MPs use their judgement to determine what is in the interests of the British people, even where this offends the sensibilities of Labour members.

In a way, it feels like a return - almost - to the beer-and-sandwiches Labour governance of the 1970s, of the Wilson years (which, by sheer coincidence, were also years of soaring energy prices, inflation, big government spending, big deficits).

Starmer and his team say they at last have the power to engage with the electorate, and draft policies that a majority of the British people could support.

What they mean is they know best, and many Labour members are too obsessed with narrow factional causes.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner appeared to have been blindsided by the reshuffle. Credit: PA

What will this mean in practice?

Well we got more than a clue from today’s speech by the shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves.

There was an emphasis on spending wisely on public services, procurement and investment, not letting deficit and debt rip, obtaining value for money.

And there was no reference to nationalising any parts of the economy, let alone the commanding heights.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves with Keir Starmer after addressing the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Credit: PA

Which is not to say there was no ambition.

Reeves pledged to abolish business rates, hinted at much higher taxes for digital giants, and pledged £28 billion annual investment “to green” the UK’s infrastructure and business.

Also she foreshadowed a shift to wealth taxes but didn’t rule out everyone paying more tax to finance the party’s public service priorities (one of her colleagues says the party’s polling is clear our priorities have shifted away from personal spending to collective spending on health, social care and education - which is certainly what Boris Johnson seems to believe).

It’s definitely not austerity, or even Gordon Brown prudence.

But it is very explicitly pitched to pre-empt the inevitable Tory charge that every Labour government ends in a national bust (which is one of those charges that is both historically inaccurate and almost always effective).

In an economic sense it is not “out there” in any sense.

Rachel Reeves giving her keynote speech at the Labour Party conference. Credit: PA

In some ways it was boringly mainstream.

But Reeves secured an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Perhaps even the party’s most idealistic members are bored with being in opposition, eleven years and counting.