Keir Starmer’s first in person party conference as Labour leader should have been a new beginning; unshackled from COVID restrictions, it was a chance to raise his own profile with the electorate and put clear blue water between himself and the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn.
Since becoming Leader of the Opposition in spring 2020, Starmer and his shadow cabinet have faced challenges on multiple fronts, including poor local election results, such as the loss of the ‘Red Wall’ constituency of Hartlepool, and the distraction of internal party disputes.
But, with headlines currently dominated by fuel and energy crises, and predictions of a winter of discontent, this conference season looked as if it could be a turning point for Starmer to carve out his offer to the public as Labour Leader and capitalise on the Government’s current challenges.
Yet, Labour Party Conference hasn’t been the ‘fresh start’ for which Starmer had been hoping. Instead, it has been marred by disagreements over leadership voting rules, the unexpected resignation of Andy McDonald from the Shadow Cabinet, and a focus on the language that Deputy Leader Angela Rayner used to describe the Prime Minister.
Despite the controversies, Labour has used its conference to begin laying out its offer to the electorate. Spending commitments were made on health, particularly around dementia care, and on climate change, with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves promising to become the first ‘Green Chancellor’ by pledging £28bn a year on climate measures. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds promised to recruit 5,000 more special constables in their first year of government, to “bring back neighbourhood policing” so that there are more “eyes, ears and boots on the ground”.
Keir Starmer’s speech was a chance to grasp the opportunity presented by the crises that the country faces and present himself as a Prime Minister in waiting. He needed to respond to internal and external critics that claim that the public still do not know who he is and what he stands for.
So, did he deliver?
In terms of providing more insight into the man himself, there were long sections focused on Starmer’s childhood, and the role his parents – a nurse and a toolmaker – played in cementing his political views and motivation. He also reflected on the impact his previous job as head of the Crown Prosecution Service had had on him, including contact with the families of murder victims.
In terms of content and policy, there were unmistakeable echoes of the Blair era – perhaps unsurprising considering that the speech included input from a former Blair speech writer, Philip Collins. Starmer quipped that education is so important, he considered saying it three times – a reference to Blair’s iconic ‘education, education, education’ speech in 1996. He also spent time listing the successes of the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010.
There were commitments to spend a minimum of 3% of GDP on science and research, a pivot to prevention rather than emergency care in the NHS, and a pledge to protect mental health spending.
Overall, the speech was light on concrete policy commitments, but then again perhaps that was not necessary. Much more important was instilling the sense that this is a serious man, with a clear plan, focused on the task of building a government in waiting – and of course drawing a contrast between Starmer and the Prime Minister, who he described as ‘not bad’ but ‘trivial’.
The hecklers who continuously interrupted Starmer’s speech were evidence, as if it was needed, that this Labour Conference has seen battle lines drawn within the Party – Starmer has decided to pursue a route that will reignite internal hostilities, rather than resolve or paper over them.
Perhaps that is a deliberate calculation from the Labour Leader. He has made clear that his sole focus is on winning the next General Election, and that the left of the Party needs to fall in behind that aim or be side-lined.
Yesterday’s interruptions and jeers may prove to serve a useful purpose– a demonstration to the wider electorate of the distance being introduced between Labour’s current and former leadership. It is a gamble the result of which will only become clear in the months and years ahead.
With Keir Starmer only just beginning to lay out his vision for government, and the Labour Party remaining in a state of flux, there has never been a more important time to engage with politicians on the Opposition benches and beyond. If you would like an informal chat about your policy and political priorities, get in touch with the Brands2Life Public Affairs team, on firstname.lastname@example.org