In his first conference speech as leader, Sir Keir Starmer majored on one theme: the Labour Party is under new management. This message had already been written out, underscored and highlighted throughout the five-day online event, but was exemplified even before Starmer had spoken a word as he was introduced by the Jewish former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth.
Although Starmer did not mention his predecessor by name, the emphasis on the party’s need to head in a new direction was particularly acute during his comments on the 2019 Election. In contrast to some of his colleagues, Starmer did not cry out that Brexit was the cause of Labour’s biggest defeat since 1935 – perhaps in part owing to his own keenness for a second referendum – but instead asked incredulously: “What were we doing?”
Not only did he say that Labour deserved to lose the election but he promised that the party would never again “go into an election not being trusted on national security, with your job, with your community and with your money,” – a brutal takedown of Corbyn’s leadership and a recognition that his perceived lack of patriotism did not play well with voters.
Starmer’s speech was light on detailed policy initiatives but sought instead to shroud itself in the Union Jack, as he at one point outlined his vision for Britain to be “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”.
The dearth of specific policy announcements was one of few luxuries of being locked into opposition for four more years before the party needs to make its case for leadership. Here, Starmer is consciously putting Labour in a protected position to free them up to focus on attacking the Government while creating little room for them to fire back. Eventually, he’ll have to articulate his own vision – and explain exactly how this differs from Labour leaders past – but for now Keir is very much enjoying playing the role of back-seat driver. The message that the Labour Party was serious about the challenge ahead was also exemplified by Starmer standing, literally, in front of a red wall, with many speculating it was much more than chance, and instead a clear sign that the band of seats Labour lost in 2019 were the ones that they would be focused on winning back.
On the prospect of another lockdown, Starmer said, “it would be a sign of Government failure”, while adding that they had “lost control” of the crisis. He presented Johnson as “flippant” and “arrogant” for his handling of the pandemic, while attempting to contrast his own background with the Prime Minister’s by reminding the public that, as the Director of Public Prosecutions, he was “fighting for justice and the rule of law,” while “Boris was writing columns about bendy bananas”.
Conservative literature is always careful to reference the Labour Leader as Sir Keir Starmer, however the former barrister seems comfortable to own that title for now – confident that his strong record of public service will play strongly with the electorate.
The Labour Party has a long road ahead, but Starmer’s speech was received warmly by commentators across the political spectrum, with many noting that it was the best Labour conference speech in years. One thing which was clear was that the Labour leader wants to speak to the whole country rather than just the membership, with a focus on rebuilding public trust in the party (an almost open goal with confidence in the Conservative Party steadily declining). Whether Starmer will be successful in his mission to draw back the party’s life-long voters from the Tories depends on too many variable factors between now and 2024, however one thing is clear: another new dawn has broken.