It was a slightly different challenge this year. Last time around, he needed to look weighty, the serious alternative to Boris Johnson’s flights of fancy. If he was boring, that didn’t matter too much. Up against Liz Truss, however, he needed to be more visionary than he’s previously managed. Still serious and weighty, but with the image – at least – of a crusading spirit.
Did he manage that? Yes, he did. The claim that he’s motivated by a ‘working-class impatience’ was a little risible, but he sold his ambition for Britain better than he has before. ‘A fairer, greener future’ is the best slogan the party has come up with under his leadership, and he made a good job of articulating all three elements. He’s nobody’s idea of a saviour, but he does sound like he has an idea of a way out of our current woes.
And that was his focus: the medium-term future. What would the country feel like after five years of a Labour government, he asked, and, although he got a bit lost with his tenses, he made a fair fist of expressing hope that the situation today was not irretrievable. Over the last week, let alone the last few years, the government has gifted him a whole host of easy targets, but he spent surprisingly little time taking pot shots at the Tories, more concerned with spelling out a pragmatic optimism. And it was effective. It hung together.
The intention was clearly to appeal on a wide front. The idea of setting up a publicly owned energy company was a fine piece of footwork: the conference vote for renationalising energy, water, the railways and Royal Mail will be ignored, but there’s the prospect of some state ownership to cheer the troops. Then again, he likes a bit of aspiration: ‘Labour is the party of home ownership.’ And he promised Brexit-voters that he wasn’t proposing Singapore-on-Thames; his would be ‘a government to step in on your side’.
All this broad, inclusive stuff was summed up in the line that Labour was ‘once again the political wing of the British people’. The reference was to Tony Blair’s introduction to the 1997 manifesto, with its declaration that ‘New Labour is the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole’.
That boast was absurd, of course: in the subsequent election, the party won the votes of 31 per cent of the electorate, less than the 32.5 per cent that John Major’s Tories had managed five years earlier. Not exactly the whole. But it expressed a sound political intention. It’s no less absurd now, and no less sound as an intention.
The more interesting aspect is what’s left out from the original formulation. Because behind the typically ugly phrasing was a serious point. The relevant bit in ‘none other than the British people’ was the ‘none other’. This was Blair distancing himself from pressure groups and vested interests, and in particular – given Labour’s history – from the trade unions. New Labour was all about ‘the people’ as an abstract, not any particular incarnation of the people. That might be vague and woolly, a kind of populism lite, but there was at least a message buried in it. Labour was turning its back on being the tribune of the unions. The absence of the ‘none other’ from Starmer’s version keeps the wooliness but ditches the content.
The subtext, of course, is that this is no longer Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour (which managed just 21.5 per cent of the electorate in 2019). That was also the point of the Union Jack backdrop and the singing of the national anthem. The emphasis now is on the ‘British’. ‘Country first, party second,’ as Starmer said in his speech.
But that job’s pretty much finished now. The memory of Corbyn has been sufficiently wiped from the record that it doesn’t need any further attention. No one thinks that Starmer is coming from the same position as his predecessor and certainly no one thinks Corbynism is coming back.
The concern is that – like Blair in 1997 – Starmer will remain so spooked by the Ghost of Labour Past that he’ll err too far on the side of caution. Labour’s immediate response to Kwasi Kwarteng’s tax cuts, for example, was to pledge a restoration of the 45 per cent top rate, which is right, while maintaining the cut to the basic rate, which is not. For a politician who wants to give the impression that he’s ready to make difficult decisions, that looked like a cop-out. A more coherent approach would have been to make the case for taxation – particularly for income tax as the fairest form of raising money – and to fight on thresholds instead. Instead, Starmer has conceded the basic Tory ground that tax is a bad thing, and his failure to address the subject today suggests he has no appetite for the argument.
The most optimistic line of all was in the peroration: ‘As in 1945, 1964 and 1997, this is a Labour moment.’ For those with a fondness for Harold Wilson – and that very much includes Lion & Unicorn – it was nice to see 1964 being invoked and celebrated alongside the more obvious touchstones. And the call for ‘a new partnership of government, business and trade unions’ conjured up happy images of the NEDC, the Neddy of blessed memory. The green technologies Starmer is espousing are the new version of Wilson’s white heat.
The electoral arithmetic is far, far worse than in 1997, but to some degree the political argument is much easier. In that manifesto introduction, Blair said he wanted to be ‘honest about the last eighteen years,’ and was therefore prepared to acknowledge that there were ‘some things the Conservatives got right’. It’s not something Labour needs to say anymore, as Starmer indicated today: ‘We can’t go on like this.’ That’s a good line, just as it was in 2010 when David Cameron used it against Gordon Brown. It’s not as hopeful as ‘Things can only get better’, but it does capture the public mood. Like ‘thirteen wasted years’ in 1964, it’s a very effective attack.
Starmer has grown in the months since the Defenestration of Boris. You could see it in his response to the Queen’s death. His tribute in the Commons was solid and respectful, without being pushy. Anyway, he’s much better at speaking to a respectful chamber than he is when trying to insult the other side, to jolly along the troops behind. At the meeting of the Accession Council to proclaim the new king, he was there with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and he didn’t look out of place; an outsider wouldn’t have been surprised to be told he was prime minister. (Behind them was Ed Miliband, to remind us of what a prime minister doesn’t look like.)
He seemed entirely plausible as a PM-in-waiting today too. Not a saviour in the Blair mould. Nor Clement Attlee, the first-among-equals manager of a heavyweight team. The immediate impression was that of a competent, slightly cautious, but earnest man with ideas of what a government might achieve. Harold Wilson remains a good role model.