There was little pressure on Keir Starmer to perform in his speech today. The past three days at the Labour conference have been controversy-free. Message discipline has been tight. Most voters are focused on the conflict in Israel. The chaos at the Conservative conference in Manchester last week set the bar low. But this is Starmer’s Labour Party and people wanted to hear him speak. Queues ran down both sides of the exhibition hall and out the room beforehand. Stewards herded the pliant crowd as if we were hurriedly boarding a cruise – or a lifeboat. Phone signal crashed.
As we waited, Keir’s university friend told us he was a “regular” guy on the rectangular screen overhead. A photo album followed: Keir and Bridget Phillipson at the seaside; the shadow cabinet walking in suits; Keir saying happy birthday to the NHS; Keir with Rupert on his farm in Solihull; Keir in Scotland; several former Tory voters saying that they now like Keir.
This was a party leader who has spent three years bedding in; little could break his focus now. When he walked on stage, a protester sprang upon him with a handful of green glitter before being swiftly tackled to the ground by security. “If he thinks that bothers me, he doesn’t know me,” Starmer quipped. He did not look bothered. He took off his now sparkly jacket, rolled up his sleeves and ploughed on. His party loved him for it.
But his job was not to convince them. He needed to speak to those voters watching the news at 2pm on a Tuesday, those curious about voting for Labour. He wants to convert Tory voters turned off by the party’s rightwards trajectory and Rishi Sunak’s predecessors. He is defining himself through working-class patriotism. This is a party that has gone some way to shedding its indulgence of the extremes of social liberalism. Instead, Starmer offered a “party that conserves. That fights for our union. Our environment. The rule of law. Family life. The careful bond between this generation and the next.” Starmer’s Labour Party wants to “take our streets back”. In many ways, this was a conservative speech.
But he combined it with a shuffle to the left on economics. His main theme was “rebuilding the future” through infrastructure, planning reform and 1.5 million new homes. He wants to build another generation of “new towns” like Clement Attlee before him. He spoke of investment not as a burden on the national debt, but as an opportunity to save money, crowd in private finance and create jobs. Underpinning it all was an ease with talking about himself. He can tell a story about the cost of living and his background that Sunak’s technocratic focus on the abstract term “inflation” precludes. Starmer won over his party. His message has been refined. Now is the time to win over the country.
[See also: Labour’s future will be conservative]