Most party conference speeches last about an hour in the convention hall and then disappear. Keir Starmer’s address to the Labour Party conference on 29 September – in which I confess an interest and to which I lent a hand – lasted half an hour longer and might linger longer too in the public mind. I do not recall any speech to a party conference that made a strategic leap as large as that made by Starmer. It’s nowhere near a sufficient condition for a Labour recovery but it was undoubtedly necessary.
Ten minutes before the end of the speech there was a long-delayed moment of catharsis. Smuggled into a section ostensibly designed to mock the Conservative Party’s lack of seriousness on levelling-up, the floor of the Labour Party conference applauded the achievements of Tony Blair’s government. It ought not to be noteworthy that a party congratulates itself on former glories. Yet, in the hall, it felt like a reckoning. It is somehow typical of the Labour Party that it had to have a reckoning not with its defeats, but with its victories. There was a palpable sense, for the first time in a decade, of a party preparing to compromise with the electorate.
The length of the speech is a testament to that. In rehearsal it had not been notably long. The conference speech is always the hardest in the calendar as there are so many people who need to be mentioned, and so many topics – too many – that would be odd to omit. Tough editing, however, had kept it to time. We knew, of course – or, at least, we hoped – that there would be applause. Yet a few of us sitting in a small hotel room, offering perfunctory applause at the right moments, as if someone had just played a nice cover drive on the village green, didn’t remotely prepare us for what unfolded.
Galvanised by the presence of hecklers and critics in the hall, the majority of the spectators began to clap linking lines and cheer routine observations. Almost a third of the length of the speech was applause, which is far too much. To behold a Labour Party conference hall spoiling the leader’s speech by liking it too much was a novelty – and rather telling, given some of the lines that received acclamations. It has been a long time since the Labour Party clapped the idea of being tough on crime, or membership of Nato, or support for the military, or the hope that good businesses will make a healthy profit.
Here is the question now posed. The BBC documentary Blair and Brown: The New Revolution shows how far the two principals stretched the Labour Party in order to win the 1997 victory. Following this year’s party conference, the strategic discussion that matters in Labour will be between those who think that Starmer has gone far enough and those who think he now needs to go a lot further. There will be a lot of sound and fury from the left but Starmer’s speech in Brighton made them irrelevant, at least until the next election.
We mustn’t be tempted to draw too much from the victorious past. The documentary on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is a historical film, not an instruction manual. The context today is far more difficult. Starmer inherited a much weaker position from Jeremy Corbyn than Blair inherited from John Smith in 1994. Nor does Starmer have the platform for change that Neil Kinnock had painstakingly and courageously built over many years. The Labour Party of 2019 was in a far worse state than Labour in 1994, and Boris Johnson’s party was stronger than John Major’s. Since the election, Starmer has had to contend with a pandemic in which the usual rules of opposition were suspended.
Politics itself is very different, in obvious ways. Labour has no core vote to rely on. Brexit has accelerated the shift from politics based on occupational status to politics based on cultural values. There is no template from a previous time that will yield the perfect answer for now. But it is still true, because it will always be true, that if the Labour Party is not regarded as economically competent or essentially patriotic it is never going to win. And on both, Corbyn’s 2019 vintage was found wanting. We might as well be blunt about this. It may not be long before the next polling day and if Labour does not change it will lose a fifth consecutive election.
The question now is whether the party is willing to make the necessary reforms. The Labour leader’s speech in Brighton offered a momentary glimpse of a different sort of Labour Party. By 1994, Labour had become hungry for power. Does that desire yet exist in the party of 2021? Perhaps not; perhaps the party is not yet ready for office.
In 1962, when Hugh Gaitskell gave his famous speech in which he denounced the European Union, his wife Dora Gaitskell remarked that all the wrong people were cheering. Starmer’s conference speech inspired the opposite spectacle; in public all the right people were sneering. It is a law of Labour politics that if the left, or even the soft left, is happy, then the Labour Party is on course to lose the next election.
Labour has spent a decade pretending this is not true, but it is. The left of the party cannot chart a path to victory. They know what they think but they don’t know how to win and, unless they win, what they think doesn’t matter at all.
So how much will the Labour Party change? No single speech is ever the last word on anything and Starmer’s was not the final answer. But it did at least pose the question.
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places