With a general election widely predicted for next Autumn, Sir Keir Starmer used Tuesday’s speech at Liverpool’s Labour Party Conference to set out his stall for what was likely to have been the starting block of a 12 month election campaign.
Starmer entered the stage looking the most confident we’ve seen him since becoming leader. He has been buoyed by a consistent lead over the Tories in the polls, whilst winning several key by-elections with large swings back to Labour. The most recent of these was in Scotland, where the party turned an SNP majority of 5,230 into a Labour one of 9,446, signalling a potential reversal of fortune after a torrid time for the party north of the border. He has also reversed the toxicity of the Corbyn years and reshuffled his Cabinet to better align with his own vision and tone.
This confidence put him in good stead when the stage was rushed by a protester before Starmer had even started his speech. Taking his jacket off and rolling up his sleeves, Sir Keir remarked: “…protest or power? That’s why we’ve changed our party”. He certainly didn’t look bemused or fearful and carried on with a cool head, delivering an optic so good that many people took to X saying it had been staged.
Starmer’s speech was never going to contain fine details – we won’t see those until the launch of the party’s manifesto and even then, they will be top line. Instead, we got hints of how Labour might start its process of renewing the UK after almost a decade and half of Conservative government and their role-call of five different Prime Ministers.
He gave a very effective analysis of the scale of the task in hand, saying in 1945 it was to: “build a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice”, in 1964 it was to: “modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology” and in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, it was to “rebuild a crumbling public realm” before adding: “in 2024, it will have to be all three”. This showed ambition as well as political and societal context, and it was no surprise that he added Labour would need two terms to achieve it, uniquely pitching his speech to the electorate as a long term strategy he dubbed as “a decade of national renewal”.
His main themes covered house-building and urban renewal, climate change, the economy and health.
He advocated a new era for building, with repeated promises of 1.5M new homes, entire new towns, new infrastructure and further support for green industries.
Starmer said he was determined to “fight the blockers who hold a veto over British aspiration” in housing, with changes to planning laws to allow the fast-tracking of new developments in brownfield sites and more powerful Mayors, who can spearhead local plans. There would also be help for first time buyers, by supporting younger people with a government-backed mortgage guarantee scheme.
On the economy, Starmer stressed the need for “ discipline” with public finances, whilst growing the economy by creating new jobs and attracting investment. But we won’t hear any further detailed economic plans from either him or his Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves until the short campaign. This is to ensure discipline within his own Shadow Cabinet to avoid rogue announcements that can’t be budgeted and because the UK economy itself is in such a flux following events such as Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the Liz Truss budget debacle. Both main parties will want to know exactly what they have to play with later next year, before details are revealed.
Nonetheless, Starmer and Reeves’ policy of discipline whilst seeking growth is likely to reassure business, the markets and floating voters that Starmer does not propose being reckless – a policy that worked very well for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the run-up to the 1997 vote.
One of the main economic issues is of course the cost of living crisis, and this allowed Starmer some time to establish an emotional connection with audiences, retelling the story of a single mother he met while on holiday in the Lake District this year who said she was in survival mode. Cleverly, Starmer talked not just about her words, but how the crisis was clearly affecting her wellbeing, saying: “I could see the hurt in her eyes”. Recent polling by the 38 Degrees campaign group show that the cost of living crisis is one of two of the main issues facing the wider electorate, and this part of his speech was therefore as necessary as it was effective.
The second priority issue referred to in that polling is health. One of Labour’s biggest electoral assets is the National Health Service and we can expect lots of “you only have a few days to save the NHS” messaging going out from the party in the days leading up to the next election. The service is clearly in trouble with stalled hospital building, creaking A&E units and waiting lists for operations back to record levels.
Starmer used his speech as an opportunity to say he wants to reform the NHS from a “sickness service” to a preventative service, an approach that medical professionals have been advocating for many years and gave the audience lots to cheer by saying he wanted to consign dangerous waits for cancer treatment “to history”.
His promise to end the “8am scramble” to get a GP appointment will have resonated up and down the country and was also an opportunity for him to connect as a leader with actual knowledge of the issues people have to go through, in contrast with the perception of aloof Conservatives.
On climate change, Starmer continued to honour Labour’s commitment to invest £6 billion on insulating homes and increasing the country’s supply of renewable power. It was enough for Friends of the Earth to react saying: “Starmer’s speech marked a gear shift for Labour that sets them well apart from the Conservatives”. A good result considering the party is already in the process of scaling back some of its previously announced green initiatives, something also likely to be held in review until the manifesto launch.
But it’s not just policy that will decide the outcome of the next election. People, and in particular those from demographics who have voted Conservative in recent elections, need to learn more about him and be able to justify “why him and why Labour?” at the ballot box, over and above their disappointment and anger with the Conservatives, and to some extent, the SNP in Scotland.
For this, Starmer showed humility and humour, in addition to reinforcing his own working class roots, Hconnecting with a large swathe of the electorate who may see him as just another posh suit from North London.
Starmer cleverly combined all three by making a self deferential dig at the amount of times he (and presumably, other politicians) have talked about their humble origins. To laughter, he said: “I’m trying really hard not to mention the house that I grew up in again… but seriously, that pebble-dashed semi was everything to my family.”
And his wider pitch to Conservative voters ticked some familiar Blair-ite ground in messages that could easily have been written by Peter Mandeslon himself: Labour will fight for the union, will defend family life, will keep taxes down and will be pro-business.
All the signs show that Labour could finally be on course for a victory at the next election. The polls are consistently good, with the latest post-conference YouGov poll showing Labour leading the Conservatives by 23 points and a mega-poll of 11,000 voters by Survation last week suggesting a 190 seat Labour landslide, with twelve of Rishi Sunak’s current Cabinet losing their seats. The by-election victories are largely good, with only one disappointment put down to the unpopularity of a policy by London’s mayor, rather than the Labour Party nationally. They are making inroads in constituencies that have been tough for years. In particular, if the recent Scottish result is indicative of further success north of the border, then Labour could be on course to win back critically important seats that they lost to the SNP, which will balance the often Conservative English vote. All political scientists are saying these are near-guaranteed signs of success. Meanwhile, the problems and crises hitting the governments of both London and Edinburgh show no sign of abating, all the the benefit of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
For Starmer, it’s a case of keeping the ship steady over the next 12 months. He has more work to do to connect with the northern votes that melted away during the Johnson/Corbyn years and that will have to include firmer ideas on how to fix the north/south divide and real, tangible ways in which investment can be used to revitalise their towns and communities. And he needs a media strategy that sees him as a Prime Minister in-waiting on the international stage for corporate audiences, as well as softer interviews on the couches of daytime TV for him to allow people to get to know more about him. As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, the knighted, former lawyer from North London might not be able to convince them that he is one of them, but above everything else, he needs to show that he is with them.