That was a good speech and – for Keir Starmer – a well-delivered one. Starmer has a new young speechwriter, Alan Lockey, who has replaced (the New Statesman’s) Philip Collins as the primary writer of the Labour leader’s conference speech. That is the key backroom change this year. The rest of the core team remains the same: a trio of other aides – Paul Ovenden, Stuart Ingham and Deborah Mattinson – helped craft both speeches.
Today’s conference address, Starmer’s third as leader, was markedly more confident than the previous two, both in style and substance. Take the issues of Brexit and the SNP. Jeremy Corbyn’s mishandling of Brexit (among other things) reduced his appeal as Labour leader, while the spectre of a Labour-SNP deal blighted Ed Miliband’s bid for power in 2015. Starmer needs to assuage voters’ concerns on both fronts, and today – for the first time in a conference speech – he addressed both issues directly.
In 2020, he offered little more than this on Brexit: “The grown-up way to deal with Brexit is to negotiate properly and get a deal… let me be absolutely clear. The debate between Leave and Remain is over.” In 2021, he again touched on the issue only as a brief aside: “A botched Brexit followed by Covid has left a big hole. You need a plan to ‘Make Brexit work’. I do see a way forward after Brexit if we invest in our people and our places.”
But today he made Brexit – and the Conservatives’ failure to deliver on it – a core part of his argument: that the Tories are proving themselves unfit to govern on issue after issue.
“If you want the totemic symbol,” he said this afternoon, of “the biggest failure to grasp the nettle, then look no further than Brexit.” “It’s no secret,” he added, “that I voted Remain – as the Prime Minister did”, he said with a smile. But rather than moving on from the issue, as he traditionally has, Starmer built on his theme, reframing Brexit as a vote for a more left-wing, socially democratic state:
“What I heard, across the country [during the Brexit vote], was people who thought we’d got our priorities wrong. Who wanted democratic control over their lives. But who also wanted opportunities for the next generation, communities they felt proud of, public services they could rely on. I didn’t hear that Brexit was about slashing workers’ rights. I didn’t hear people wanting to lower standards on food, animal welfare or the environment. I didn’t hear them wanting to end redistribution.”
“The Tories,” he declared, “are changing the meaning of Brexit before your eyes.”
Starmer was equally forthright on the SNP. In 2020, he did not mention the party. And in 2021 he said nothing more notable than: “Scotland is in the unfortunate position of having two bad governments… The SNP and the Tories walk in lock-step. They both exploit the constitutional divide for their own ends.”
But this year he not only addressed the perennial issue of the SNP but did so by building on his argument on Brexit. “Labour will make Brexit work. Labour will deliver change,” Starmer stressed. “You’ll never get that from the Tories. And you won’t get it from the SNP either.”
He made his first conference commitment never to work with the SNP in order to win office after the next election. “For them [the SNP], Scotland’s success in the UK is met with gritted teeth, seen as a roadblock to independence, and so, they stand in the way. We can’t work with them. We won’t work with them. No deal under any circumstances.”
The whole address had a pep that Starmer’s speeches once lacked. They have improved notably in the past six months, first in parliament and now at conference.
His account of his childhood was also more memorable than it has been in the past. He painted a picture, making his youth sound like something out of Life on Mars: “I grew up in a pebble-dashed semi. Dad was a tool-maker, Mum was a nurse, our first car was a Ford Cortina – this was the 1970s.” He then turned to a theme mined by every successful politician of the left: “It wasn’t easy. But there’s something else I remember about being working class in the 1970s: hope. A hope that was ordinary. Basic. Taken for granted.”
“My parents never doubted for one second,” he emphasised, “that things would get better.” How many people in Britain still believe that today? It is an effective question to pose. “As in 1945, 1964, 1997,” Starmer concluded, hopefully, “this is a Labour moment.”
Is it? Starmer’s positioning – framing Labour as the party of fiscal responsibility, of Nato, of house building and homeowning, of business – is giving many long-disappointed supporters hope that it may be. I asked one shrewd lobby journalist what he made of the speech. “Frustratingly good,” they replied.
[See also: What we learned from Labour conference 2022]