Keir Starmer turns left and makes his leadership pitch

The shadow Brexit secretary strayed from his brief and stressed his Corbynite bona fides on economic and foreign policy.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The euphemisms “thinly-veiled” and “wide-ranging” could have been invented for the speech Keir Starmer gave to Labour conference this evening. As anyone with a pulse could have predicted, the shadow Brexit secretary was met with rapturous applause as he stressed - repeatedly - that as far as he was concerned, a vote for Labour meant a vote for Remain.

But more surprising was the alacrity with which Starmer strayed deliberately from his brief. 

As well as hitting familiar notes on the virtues of Remain, he went out of his way to sound enthusiastically Corbynite on inequality and the economy ("the status quo is bust...we need a fundamental shift in power, wealth, and opportunity"), domestic policy ("Only a Labour government will end child poverty...the moral disgrace of homelessness...end insecure work") and climate (“Only a Labour government will tackle the climate emergency, so we can look at the next generation in the eye and say ‘we did not let you down’”).

Starmer’s remarks on foreign policy were also infused with intriguingly dovish rhetoric. “We profoundly believe in peace, reconciliation, human rights and collaboration across borders,” he said. He also stressed that Labour should not just Remain but lead the effort to reform the EU, a favourite theme of the pro-European wing of the Corbynite left.

Taken together, it all looked rather like a calculated attempt to do two things: prove to the PLP that Starmer could speak authoritatively and emotively on issues other than Europe (a common complaint from MPs who doubt his lawyerly mien and forensic approach to his shadow ministerial brief necessarily qualify him for the leadership), and prove to the membership that he was a genuine enthusiast for and believer in their worldview.

Will it work? Starmer consistently tops polls of members when they are asked who they think would make a good successor to Corbyn, and they gave him a hero’s welcome this evening. But the fact that the speech was then followed by a conclusive vote against Starmer’s Brexit position, driven by deference to Corbyn and suspicion of those attempting to outflank it on Europe, suggests his gambit might not be as fruitful as he hopes.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.