The Labour Party has not won a general election in 15 years. December 2019 saw it go down to its worst defeat since 1935, a fitting end to five years under Jeremy Corbyn that lacked any sense of true opposition, leadership, ambition or political skill. Sir Keir Starmer was elected to lead the party in April, and his new approach – a world away from that of his predecessor – was on full display in Doncaster as he made his first speech at Labour Party Conference as leader.
For the first time in a decade, it feels like the Labour leader understands how people in the UK view their party. They don’t really like it. It’s out of touch. It lacks the conviction to play its opponents at their own game, and Starmer’s speech seemed not only to understand this sentiment, but to deeply sympathise with it. “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to”, he remarked.
This will be a dagger in the hearts of ‘Corbynistas’ who, in the aftermath of the 2019 election, sought to blame anything other than Corbyn and Corbynism for the loss. Brexit, the media, Tony Blair: the list was endless. I am fully aware that Starmer was a major figure in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – and I believe he played a role in the election defeat – but this first-hand experience of five years of chaos will help, rather than hinder, his path to Downing Street.
Starmer dedicated a whole section toward something the previous leader’s advisors would have moved heaven and earth to avoid cropping up: personal integrity. Boris Johnson has recently used Keir Starmer’s knighthood as something to poke fun at, implying that Labour should be embarrassed by having a leader who has ‘Sir’ before his name which links him, and by association them, to elitism and the metropolitan establishment. He took the wind out of the PM’s sails on this matter by explaining his pride in his knighthood for services to criminal justices, simultaneously taking the opportunity to set out his values as an individual, longing for “a country in which we put family first”. This brushes away the peculiar idea that caring for one’s family is an inherently right-wing principle.
The new leader is willing to confront Johnson and his cabinet (who were described, accurately in my view, by Starmer as being chosen on “loyalty alone”) on key issues. He promised to put communities, jobs and national security at the heart of Labour’s 2024 election manifesto. In his time, Jeremy Corbyn was attacked for his previous dealings with the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah and other hate groups, and whilst some of these attacks were not fair, most of them were. Unsurprisingly, the British public will not vote for a Prime Minister who has a poor reputation on issues of national security, whether this reputation be justified or not.
If Labour is to make it anywhere near power, it is the public having an overall perception of maturity and competence, that will get them there. Starmer’s speechwriters and strategists got this address spot on in relation to policy in that there was virtually no policy at all within it. In a time of crisis, years away from an election, they have made the calculation that people do not want to hear about whether Labour will propose to raise the living wage by 10p or 15p, or how they intend to restructure local government funding. People want to see a party that understands the gravity of governance and in which, over time, they could place their trust. Keir Starmer has started this process highly effectively with the recognition that changing a party’s image takes years and not months.
The Doncaster speech was refreshing: it used language that actual people use and focused on issues that actual people care about. Fancy that, eh? That’s not to say that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t care about people or have principles – he did. However, I’m afraid Starmer is a much needed break from the days of a leader who didn’t understand that unless you play the Westminster game of building support and communicating a vision of trust and common sense to the public, your values will forever remain obsolete as you will never get the chance to bring about change.
In the nine months since his election victory, Boris Johnson has let people down. Even after winning an 80-seat majority, it was widely accepted that there was no deep love for the Conservatives in previously Labour-held areas such as the North East and Midlands, but rather they saw the Tories as the only credible option for government. No one expects the country to be flourishing given the current circumstances, but people expect a man of such (apparent) political brilliance to get the most basic of decisions right. Starmer has deftly highlighted his failure to do this, referencing the “national scandal” of not protecting care homes, the exams fiasco, and other mishaps.
If the Labour leader continues down this route of accompanying policy attacks with emphasis on his own credibility as a patriot and champion of aspiration he will become a magnetic force for lost Labour voters. (I mean, the speech was literally delivered in front of a red brick wall.)
And so, Sir Keir Starmer’s message from his first conference leader’s speech can essentially be distilled into just one line, a line that will simultaneously terrify Conservatives who have taken weak opposition for granted for years and bring glee to those who want to see a Labour Prime Minister back in Downing Street: “It’s time to get serious about winning”. There should be no doubt that he means it.
Image: Jeremy Corbyn via Flickr