So the Labour leader will be spared having to face a conference hall packed with disgruntled trade union chieftains hardly in the mood to give a rapturous reception to his keynote address on Tuesday. Instead, Starmer will stand on a stage in a largely empty room and speak into a camera. The first real test of his oratory comes later this month, nearly 18 months into his leadership, when the Labour Party gathers in person for its annual conference in Brighton.
Labour’s allies and financial supporters in the trade union movement are moving on to the offensive, with demands for a four-day working week, substantial rises in public-sector pay, a wealth tax and more workplace regulation filling the Congress agenda.
Yet few motions urge the Labour Party to give political voice to their objectives.
Union leaders appear to be already abandoning hope of a Labour victory at the next general election and switching their attention to industrial action and their own campaigns.
Sharon Graham, the new leader of the Unite public-sector super union, has promised to avoid dabbling in Labour Party politics and focus on workplace issues and direct action against so-called “bad bosses”.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, is spearheading her own campaigns for an increase in Capital Gains Tax and against scrapping the temporary increase in the Universal Credit welfare benefit introduced by the Government to help low-income households at the height of the pandemic.
Union chiefs are increasingly resigned to the prospect of Boris Johnson staying in Downing Street for years and want to take the fight to the Tories themselves rather than waiting for a Labour Party revival.
Opinion polls have been showing remarkable support for the Prime Minister and his team heading into the mid-term phase of the current parliamentary term and after 11 years of Tory rule.
However, there may be a poll shift following the swingeing tax rises to fund an assault on the backlog of NHS treatment left by Covid and an overhaul of the social care system announced by the Government this week.
One survey yesterday gave Labour a two percent lead over the Tories, though another had the Prime Minister’s party four points ahead. In past parliaments, Oppositions routinely held double-figure leads at this stage in the electoral cycle.
Tory MPs remain confident, despite the recent dip in support for their party in the polls.
One former minister told me: “Boris is in an incredibly powerful position. He is going to be around as long as he wants.
“Labour in the Commons is still dominated by the Left-wingers that came in under Jeremy Corbyn. Voters are just not interested in their outdated class-war sloganeering.”
Tory MPs feel the Prime Minister out-manoeuvred Sir Keir this week, trapping Labour into voting against billions more for the NHS. Mr Johnson can be expected to remind the Opposition leader of that vote every time they face each other in the Commons over the coming months.
For all his efforts to edge away from the hard-Left extremism of his predecessor Mr Corbyn, the Labour leader has so far failed to spell out a compelling message about what difference he would make in Downing Street.
His allies in the trade union movement are little enthused by his leadership so far. He will need to deliver a barnstormer in his first fully-fledged leader’s speech to the Labour conference at the end of the month to have any hope of staying in the race for the next general election.
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