Politicians should never deliver speeches on Saturdays. The press miss them and they slip by. But Keir Starmer’s speech to Progressive Britain last Saturday is worth revisiting. It was an attempt to seize the conservative mantel from a party whose senior politicians were about to embark on a three-day conference of incoherence. As I wrote on Tuesday, the values that Suella Braverman championed in her speech at Nat Con are not foreign to Starmer. What he can do is fuse those values with some industrial strategy and an acknowledgement of the cost-of-living crisis.
Starmer’s speech on Saturday was all about his values. He listed them: “dignity, understanding, and most of all, respect.”
“The Conservative Party can no longer claim to be conservative,” Starmer said. “We understand that a nation is not just a country, but a community. Not just a collection of individuals, but a cause. And from that, that we all owe things to one another… If that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care.”
Starmer must have been reading Jason’s columns. As our editor recently pointed out, “respect” is the key word for Olaf Scholz’s SDP in Germany. He writes: “During the election campaign Scholz didn’t speak […] in abstractions about green new deals and ‘the highest sustained growth in the G7’. He spoke about respect.”
There’s no sign that Starmer will stop talking in the abstract about the G7, but he is trying to speak in the language of values, to voters seeking security. He is chasing a traditionally Conservative talking point while the Tories are searching for a unifying agenda. Much as he did in March, when he referred to Thatcher in a speech on law and order, he is eagerly trying to signal to voters that he isn’t a big scary revolutionary.
Politically, this makes sense. It helps to alleviate any residual fear among voters from Labour’s more expansive 2019 programme. The messaging fits the times. The values of stability and security resonate when 11 million people are struggling to pay their bills – 3.1 million more than last May. In the face of that economic hardship, Labour argue that a more interventionist state is needed to deliver stability. Or as Starmer put it to the British Chamber of Commerce yesterday: “There’s no future in a stand-aside state. That won’t deliver the stability and the certainty, [it] won’t manage the tide of change that is coming.”
As one shadow cabinet reminded me recently, in 1997 the economy was booming. Voters were getting richer. Optimism was in the air – people built big white domes and spoke about new dawns. Today is different.
[See also: What does Keir Starmer stand for?]