Keir Starmer will outline priorities for 2021 at first virtual Fabian conference

Andrew Harrop

For a quarter of a century, the Labour Party’s year has kicked off with the Fabian Society new year conference. Every party leader from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn has addressed the gathering. This year, the traditional face-to-face conference is of course another casualty of the pandemic.

Next weekend, Keir Starmer will instead speak at a special online new year conference organised by the Fabians and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies. The usual day in a London conference centre is being transformed into a weekend of free-flowing online debate across Saturday and Sunday, January 16th and 17th.

And with politicians confined to their homes, the event will feature more senior Labour figures than ever before. Starmer will be accompanied by Angela Rayner, Anneliese Dodds, Lisa Nandy, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Ed Miliband, Kate Green, David Lammy, Rachel Reeves and many more. 

Following Wednesday’s horrifying events in the United States, the conference will take an in-depth look at the implications of the US elections for the UK and Europe. During his presidency Donald Trump made the world a more dangerous place and a Trump second term would have made it more dangerous still. Joe Biden’s victory is an inspiration to parties of the centre left and will help to advance peace, prosperity, public health and climate justice.

But Trump’s assaults on democratic norms were worse even than his policies. In victory and in defeat, he served as the global beacon for virulent right-wing populism, giving succour to political hatred and strongmen everywhere. The UK has not been immune. Trump’s influence has rubbed off on a Boris Johnson premiership that has been marked by culture war politics and contempt for institutions and the rule of law. The Fabian conference will discuss prospects for populism after Trump.

Boris Johnson has always travelled lightly with respect to political conviction: in a changing international and domestic context, he could easily tone down his Trumpian persona and seek to project himself as a unifying one nation leader. Trump’s defeat and the events of recent weeks may sound an alarm bell for Conservatives on the downsides of divisive extremes.

Speakers and delegates at the FEPS-Fabian event will debate Labour’s response. Even in defeat, Donald Trump was able to gain ten million extra votes, and there is no reason to rule out the Conservatives also winning more support when our next election comes. Opinions on the Prime Minister may have soured this year but there are few who voted Tory in 2019 who regret their choice today.

Joe Biden won because he was able to stitch together a truly diverse coalition, of different types of people, in different types of places. The broad church constructed by the Democratic Party this year must be a model for Labour’s new political project. Keir Starmer has made a strong start, with his energies devoted to detoxifying the Labour brand and projecting competent leadership. This is an essential first base, following the catastrophic 2019 election defeat, which was caused by the collapse in Labour’s vote – not a surge in Tory support. 

At the Fabian conference, delegates will debate how the party can go further this year, with critical elections ahead in May. The challenge will be to inspire the young and radical while reassuring and reengaging the cautious swing-voter. To achieve both at once, Labour needs a hopeful and credible message of economic and social progress. But Starmer must also sidestep Tory political traps designed to force him into taking sides on fault-line questions of identity and values.

The Democrats won despite an electoral map skewed in Trump’s favour. Again, this offers hope for Labour, because the UK map also benefits the right. If the Labour and Conservative vote is tied in 2024, the Tories are likely to end up with many more MPs. Just as with the US electoral college, Labour must accept a political backdrop it cannot change. 

Between now and 2024, the party will need to reach out further and put down new roots in all of the 150 constituencies that will determine the next election. The map may look daunting, but the Democrats won in Georgia. As in the USA, Labour’s pathway to winning again lies both through reclaiming former strongholds and through gaining seats the party has almost never won before. The conference next weekend will chart the way forward.

The FEPS-Fabian Society new year conference takes place online on Saturday, January 16th, and Sunday, January 17th. To secure a free ticket to the conference, join the Fabian Society today.

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