Earlier today Keir Starmer gave his first in-person speech to the Labour Party conference, in what was billed by many in the media as a make or break moment for the Leader of the Opposition in light of Labour’s eternal internal strife. Here are our four key takeaways:
(1) An attempt to recalibrate
Woven throughout Starmer’s maiden in-person speech was a clear emphasis on the need for Labour to recalibrate the message it conveys to the electorate ahead of the next election. The rapturous applause that greeted the list of New Labour achievements reeled off by Starmer felt akin to a watershed moment for a party that, for the last 11 years, has – to its own detriment – sought to denigrate its own record in office under Blair and Brown. Similarly, the parallels between Starmer’s emphasis on security and crime and Tony Blair’s infamous “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” stance were clear for all to see – a smart approach for a former Director of Public Prosecutions to lean on. Whilst the scale of recalibration needed to catapult Labour back into government cannot be overstated, today was a clear sign that Starmer intends to move Labour away from pipedream policies and towards shared values with the electorate.
(2) Buying time
Though not exactly renowned for their political nous, one would have nonetheless thought the last dredges of Momentum may have sensed that frequent heckling would only play into Keir Starmer’s efforts to turn the page on Corbynism. Instead, the constant heckles – including when Starmer spoke of his terminally ill mother – only served to further vindicate Starmer’s conviction that Labour must abandon the core tenets of Corbynism, and with haste. Although his approach to the hecklers did not mirror Neil Kinnock’s infamous 1985 speech, his willingness to criticise the 2019 manifesto as ‘not a serious plan for government’ echoed the same willingness as Kinnock in Bournemouth to drag the Labour party back to political reality.
(3) Integrity vs triviality
In the aftermath of the fallout from Angela Rayner branding Tories ‘scum’, Starmer instead chose to embrace a much more effective critique of Boris Johnson, labelling him “a trivial man” and “a showman with nothing left to show”. No doubt this is a message that has been tested with focus groups, and one that is more likely to resonate with the voters that Labour needs to win back if it is to ever become a party of government again. Even more so when such triviality can so plausibly be contrasted with Starmer’s public image as a man of integrity after a long career as a public prosecutor. In spite of the clear logic behind this approach, however, Starmer must be careful not to fall into the trap that so many of Boris Johnson’s former foes have – underestimating his ability to mask his triviality with a public persona oozing in charisma and audacity.
(4) The building blocks are there, but is the execution?
For those who most need a Labour government, today’s speech was a heartening one. Labour is, for its many self-evident failings, beginning to move in the right direction; away from its fringe and back towards the electorate whom it must convince of its worthiness for office. But after 11 years in opposition, and with the stench of Corbynism still lingering, the task ahead will require a level of execution that Starmer and his team have yet to demonstrate. Articulating what Labour stands for, not just against, will be a key theme of Starmer’s messaging in the years ahead – executing this approach will require his party to fall in line. With the socialist campaign group continuing to undermine Labour’s new direction, coupled with the dire quality of Labour’s remaining frontline MPs, the odds still remain firmly against Keir Starmer.