Did he look like a potential prime minister? That was the test. An unfair test, perhaps, since it’s only a first conference speech. But that was what was demanded of Sir Keir Starmer, seventeen months into his leadership.
The perception thus far has been that there’s a stiffness about him, an unease in his smile that can be reminiscent of Gordon Brown in his government’s dying days. That wasn’t entirely put to bed. He looked plain awkward when he leant on the podium, with a would-be informality: ‘I could talk about this all day’.
And he’s still not good at delivering the jokes. ‘Level up? You can’t even fill up!’ was a perfectly acceptable gag on petrol shortages. Tony Blair would have enjoyed delivering that, but he would added a note of contemptuous incredulity that’s beyond Starmer’s range.
He can muster a decent shout, though – even if the unattractive nasal tone is still there – and he can do resolution and determination, steamrollering ever onwards. Which was necessary to quell the heckling. Indeed it was a heckler that produced one of his better earlier lines, obviously scripted but delivered with sufficient casualness: ‘Normally at this time on a Wednesday, it’s the Tories who are heckling me. Doesn’t bother me then, doesn’t bother me now.’
The next serious outbreak of heckling was met with another scripted response: ‘Shouting slogans or changing lives, Conference?’ That wasn’t as convincing, and to drown out the dissidents, it had to be repeated and backed up with two sustained standing ovations. ‘You can chant all day,’ he said, and there were moments when some in the audience saw it as an invitation.
The speech was short on pledges and policy, long on values, of course, but that’s to be expected of a leader’s debut, particularly when (it is hoped) there’s not a general election coming along next year. And if those values – ‘work, care, equality, security’ – are a bit mom-and-apple-pie, then that’s no great surprise either.
The important bit is the personal pitch. Not so much the repeated and somewhat irritating references back to ‘my mum’ and ‘my dad’, but the claim that he’s a practical man with a practical approach: ‘Working out what’s wrong. Fixing it.’
Also from the 1990s playbook was the denunciation of Tory sleaze. ‘Politics has to be clean. Wrongdoing has to be punished.’ And indeed he was stronger on attacking the government than advocating anything concrete. ‘Boris Johnson is a trivial man,’ he said. ‘A showman with nothing left to show.’ It’s a charge that shouldn’t be difficult to make stick. As Johnson’s gloss continues to wear off, Starmer will presumably return again and again to his Gordon Brown-like argument: ‘These times demand a serious leader.’
Most effective was when he got onto his home turf of crime and the judicial system. ‘Crime hurts, and victims need justice to be done,’ is a good slogan, straight from the 1990s, though reminiscent not so much of Blair’s ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ as Michael Howard’s ‘Prison works’. It was the best bit of the speech, drawing on his previous career as a prosecutor rather than as a defence barrister. ‘The fight against crime will always be a Labour issue. A Labour issue.’
These were decent lines. ‘The good society’, on the other hand, is a soundbite that’ll surely be thrown out with the chip-paper. And the evocation of Britain as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution was so blindingly obvious that it might as well have been accompanied by mention of the Blitz Spirit. ‘A scientific revolution is happening all around us,’ he declared, which is as true today as it has been for the last two centuries.
Going into Sir Keir’s speech, Labour wasn’t really setting the agenda for public debate, since it didn’t seem to have anything to say about the fuel crisis, which has been the only news story in town. We had learned, however, that the Party wants a national minimum wage that’s higher than the median wage; that it supports men who have cervixes, but isn’t keen on white men speaking; that it doesn’t approve of public schools or Israel, and thinks of Tories as scum. Hardly a dramatic change of image, then, even if Starmer only referred to the prime minister as a ‘tool’, which is a step up from ‘scum’.
The big dramatic break with the recent past was supposed to be the rule changes for choosing the next leader. A return to the electoral college – foolishly scrapped by Ed Miliband – was promised, with the clear intention of never allowing another Jeremy Corbyn to make it to the top. That didn’t happen, and Starmer’s allies were left to claim a mighty moral victory when they got 53 per cent support to raise the nominations threshold for candidates. In itself, it’s a good move; it’s just that the implementation was so clumsy it rather gave the impression that these people aren’t really very good at politics. Anyway, a fight with the Left over an electoral college and the removal of MPs by activists? It’s so 1980.
Oh, and Andy McDonald resigned as shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections, but since no one much knew who he was, it wasn’t quite a where-were-you-when-you-heard moment. Indeed no one really knew that there was such a job; there’s no real secretary to cast a shadow. Trying to make sense of the news, some were under the impression that it was John McDonnell who had departed, which was an understandable mistake since the former shadow chancellor has been more of a media presence than most current members of the shadow cabinet.
The former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has also been much in evidence, despite not being a Labour MP anymore. That daft ‘Seven Nation Army’ chant was still to be heard around the place. And that illustrated a deeper problem for Starmer: the party’s past still weighs heavy on him. Between them, the five living ex-leaders have racked up more mentions in the newspapers this month (as of yesterday) than he has managed.
They are many and he is few, of course, but this is Starmer’s conference: one feels he should be a little more dominant than this. At a comparable stage – in September 2016 – Corbyn accounted for two-thirds of all newspaper mentions of Labour leaders. Even if few of those mentions were favourable, he was at least being talked about. Starmer has thus far been struggling to make any impact.
There was the Fabian Society essay, The Way Ahead, published in the build-up to Conference, but frankly, who cared? It was ‘banality after banality,’ said McDonnell. ‘I have read the 11,500 words. We were told it was 14,000 words – so there is 2,500 missing. That must be where the politics was.’ (McDonnell seems much happier these days, now he has a leader to criticise.) The Spectator had the best wheeze, posting the entire essay on its website, with the addition – around two-thirds of the way in – of a sentence offering a free bottle of champagne to anyone who emailed the editor. Since no such emails were received, it can reasonably be concluded that none of their readers got that far (or else were teetotallers who didn’t fancy a bottle of Pol Roger).
And behind it all is the continuing failure to break through in the opinion polls. Labour is currently behind by around 4 to 5 points, nowhere near as bad as the 16-point deficit at the same stage of Corbyn’s leadership in 2017, but short of Miliband’s narrow lead at this point in 2012.
To his credit, there was little of any of this in Starmer’s speech, no lack of confidence. His hecklers were keen to keep alive the disputes, holding up placards denouncing the ‘purge’ (the modern version of the 1980s ‘witch-hunt’), but he adopted the persona of a major, weighty politician. And it sort of suited him. This speech isn’t going to electrify the electorate, but it will begin a process of reassessment of him as a leader, and might take him to the next stage.
Because the upside to the longstanding lack of connection to the public is that all the arguments and negative imagery have largely passed unnoticed. And there are now opportunities for Labour. Covid has seen politics, in the forms of leadership, governance and policy, intrude upon private life to a degree not seen since the Second World War. Events in Westminster have had an existential quality rarely felt outside wartime.
The current stories of interruptions to fuel and food supply-lines can reasonably be dismissed by the government as temporary problems, inevitable in a period of adjustment. The question remains of what it is that we’re adjusting to. The old world, the pre-Brexit, pre-Covid world, has passed but neither party has clearly articulated a vision of the new – much less stamped their authority on what it should look and feel like.
Did Starmer do that? Well, no, not really. There were commitments on education, environmentalism, health, but it didn’t quite add up to a coherent image that was any different to what you expect a politician to say. And it was all wrapped up in the usual vacuous platitudes: People in the NHS are ‘truly the very best of us’ and we must ‘make this nation anew.’ On education: ‘Labour will write a curriculum for tomorrow.’ On Britain’s future: ‘I believe in this country, and I believe we will go forward.’
The most obvious gap was foreign affairs and defence. Nothing on our relationship with the European Union, nothing on the AUKUS pact and its implications for NATO. If it’s not the stuff that’s going to win elections, it does still need to be covered, particularly since it speaks to the division Starmer wishes to make in the public mind: it was the ‘trivial man’ who signed up to AUKUS, so what does the self-proclaimed ‘serious leader’ have to say?
But did he look like a potential prime minister? Yes, he did. The imagery, the tone, the things that count for more than policy, were strong. He looked credible. And he’s still the best option available to the Labour Party by a country mile.