The Labour leader was deliberately unsubtle in distancing himself from the Corbyn years
Keir Starmer’s conference address could be cruelly summarised as 3,303 words to say just a few: ‘I’m not Corbyn’. Or in the kinder rendering of that phrase: ‘A new leadership’. But there’s a bit more to it than that.
As one might hope, Starmer used his conference speech to compose some new mood music for a party still reeling from December’s election defeat.
Here’s some key takeaways.
1. Progressive patriotism
Spinners pitched the virtual conference address as a chance for the party to rediscover its patriotism, to ‘woo the working-class “red wall” voters who backed Boris Johnson at the last election’. There were 26 mentions of the word ‘country in the speech, including two ‘my country’-s and ‘best country’-s each. (Jeremy Corbyn tended to talk about ‘our society’ or ‘the country’).
Patriotism in England tends to carry a lot of baggage on the left – but then again, this speech wasn’t aimed at current Labour voters.
2. Not holding back on Johnson
Starmer was keen to present the PM as just not up to the job: “While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists.
“While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law,” the former lawyer said.
He continued to present the government as out of touch, and ignoring the rules voters must follow: “We’re all doing our bit to combat the virus by obeying the rule of six. Meanwhile the government won’t even obey the rule of law”.
And he reminded voters that, despite all the PM would have you believe, the Tories have been in power since 2010: “The social care system in Britain is a disgrace to a rich nation. The Tories have had a decade to sort it out, but they’ve done nothing.”
3. Beyond Brexit
We saw Starmer reveal the crux of Labour’s refusal to call for a Brexit extension: let the government face up to its failure.
“If the PM fails to get [a deal], he will be failing Britain. If that happens, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself. And he will have to own that failure. It will be on him,” Starmer said.
He was keen to move beyond the Brexit debate – seen as a key cause of Labour’s loss last year. “On Brexit, let me be absolutely clear. The debate between Leave and Remain is over. We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe.”
The Tories are keen to present Starmer as a metropolitan Remainiac – he is doing everything to try and shatter that image.
4. Home truths
Starmer didn’t hold back on his own party, or the former Corbyn leadership: “We’ve granted the Tories a decade of power. The Tories have had as many election winners in five years as we’ve had in seventy-five…It’s a betrayal of what we believe in to let this go on. It’s time to get serious about winning.” Ouch.
5. Echoes of Blair
While the policies have moved on, Starmer channelled some very New Labour vibes: “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security, with your job, with your community and with your money. That’s what being under new leadership means.”
Despite now level-pegging in the polls, Labour is still not trusted on the economy – a big reason why Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds went big on economic credibility in her conference address on Monday. Dodds even slammed the Tories for being reckless with spending – not your usual Labour messaging.
But Starmer did distance himself from both Blair and Corbyn: “It won’t sound like anything you’ve heard before. It will sound like the future arriving.” New New Labour, anyone?
6. Tackling inequality
Starmer was careful not to stray from Labour’s core values. This was still a progressive speech. The Labour leader went big on inequality, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement: “Racial inequality is one of the causes that brought me into politics. The eradication of structural racism will be a defining cause for the next Labour government. Covid-19 thrives on inequalities: structural inequalities that we must defeat,” he told viewers.
7. Moulding a vision
It wouldn’t be a leadership speech without attempting to stir up some tears: “A country which is the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in….I can see it. I can describe it. But it’s all just a dream unless we win back the trust of the people. We’ve got a long road ahead of us.” There was a challenge attached to it, too: “[That] starts with being a credible opposition”.
Starmer closed his speech by reiterating his progressive patriotism: “We love this country as you do. This is the country I grew up in and this is the country I will grow old in. And I want it to be the country I know it can be.”
What did Labour members make of it? In some sense, Starmer doesn’t have to worry too much about that. This wasn’t a normal conference speech: it was a heckle-free address to the nation. A gift for any party leader.
Josiah Mortimer is co-editor of Left Foot Forward.
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