Keir Starmer: what we learned from his first party conference speech as Labour leader

The Conversation

Delivered with energy, and with very punchy attacks on Boris Johnson and the government’s pandemic response, Keir Starmer’s first conference speech (delivered online due to the pandemic) as Labour party leader undoubtedly fulfilled his objectives.

But, because of how bad Labour’s 2019 defeat was, we also saw how those objectives indicate that a very long road lies ahead for Labour’s recovery.

The main problem Starmer identified for his party was trust. He suggested the public needed to be able to trust in Labour’s ability to function as a competent opposition, and its instincts on national and economic security.

While there was some party-focused intro material on Keir the young Surrey socialist, Starmer quickly highlighted what he sees as an important asset in rebuilding trust: a career trajectory that culminated in a knighthood for services to criminal justice. He noted his experience dealing with serious crime, and the contrast with Johnson, whom he dismissed as “just not up to the job”, was well drawn:

While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists. While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.

The absence of a narrative about Johnson, from an opposition perspective, was oddly lacking in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Starmer corrected that with this speech, deploying attacks that will surely have Johnson and his advisers prickled.

Moving to the government’s pandemic response, Starmer’s line was that the response has been incompetent and “arrogant”. He praised the public for the sacrifices made and heavily implied the government had let the country down.

What was missing

A focus on Starmer as the leader, and a character contrast with Johnson provided the substance for his effort to rebuild trust in the Labour Party. Missing, as he himself suggested, was the platform on which Labour will stand. Of course, that is understandable. Starmer is a new leader and has started the job in an unprecedented time. Much of what he says – including, perhaps, some of this speech, is swiftly swallowed by the often difficult news of the pandemic.

But we did see that Starmer is clearly focused on winning – which he readily acknowledged will take humility and change from Labour. His rhetoric reprised the sort of formulation we grew used to from Labour’s “modernisers”, from Neil Kinnock to Tony Blair – reject no compromise with the electorate, get serious about moving from opposition into government:

“Let’s be brutally honest with ourselves. When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. You don’t look at the electorate and ask them ‘what were you thinking?’, you look at yourself and ask ‘what were we doing?’”

The absence of a platform – a “vision” – means many questions were left unaddressed by Starmer’s speech. Being a “competent, credible opposition”, as Starmer himself pointed out, is not the objective – getting into government is. But being a competent opposition is also not enough to win power. For that, Labour needs to show that it has an alternative project. It doesn’t need to be filled with specific plans, but the guide for voters needs to be clearer.

On this, Starmer promised that Labour wouldn’t “look back, [but] look to the future”. The future offer will be rooted in Labour values – of course. This is all familiar rhetoric from Labour’s past. The claim that Starmer’s policy offer, “won’t sound like anything you’ve heard before” was a big, and quite improbable, one. Yes, it will be delivered and received in the unique circumstances of a global crisis, but from what we’ve seen of Labour’s response to the pandemic so far, it will look quite familiar to the social democracy of the past few decades – support for business survival, and then growth, and a focus on retraining. There was, in this speech, far less of an emphasis on Starmer’s previous line on the pandemic – the “no return to business as usual”.

On Brexit, the absence of detail was surely a weakness. “Get a deal” maybe a fun jibe at the man who said he’d “get Brexit done”, but what would Labour do to get one? Starmer’s answer, ultimately, would be a much swifter, closer deal. But he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Eyes on the prize

Starmer’s goal is clear: to return Labour to winning ways. Of course, in the leadership campaign earlier this year nobody was against winning, but the tonal shift of this address was obvious: I will do what is necessary to win, and that will be my judgement.

If policy needs to be jettisoned, Starmer signalled in this speech that he will do it. If promises could cost votes, he will surely drop them. Battles lie ahead to make that happen.

And what’s replacing Labour’s post-2015 platform? We are none the wiser. This speech was very effective at speaking to some of Labour’s big problems – specifically the trust of the electorate. In doing so it introduced a person, and a leader, effectively and convincingly. The contrast with Johnson will surely worry the Conservative party. But as to what “Starmerism” is? It remains yet to be spoken.

Karl Pike receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. He is also a member of the Labour Party.