Keir Starmer’s speech will keep him in the leader’s office, but he’ll need much more to get to Downing Street
The Labour leader batted off hecklers and took aim at Boris Johnson, but the real work starts now
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Prior to his speech at Labour conference today, there had been reports that Keir Starmer’s team were preparing him for the worst.
If the crowd starts chanting ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’, journalists were told, Starmer will have a line ready to fire back at them.
And although there were no cries of the former leader’s name during the speech, Starmer still had cause to wheel out a defensive quip.
As he received a few heckles of “£15 per hour minimum wage” during the first half of his speech, Starmer fired back.
“Shouting slogans or changing lives, conference,” he said, before adding, “we can chant all day”.
The line won him loud cheers from the audience and elided nicely with a key theme of the speech; getting serious about getting into government, even at the expense of what he might write off as ‘ideological purity’.
The speech was a relatively good one, and it had to be. Just over a year into his leadership rumours have already begun to mount about challenges from both wings of the party, while Labour fails to make up ground against a government floundering amid a rising tide of interconnected crises.
Starmer’s team weren’t lying when they briefed before the speech that it would be very ‘personal’, with large sections of it devoted to his parents and his previous career as a barrister then chief prosecutor.
But where previous attempts to provide some insight into his background have felt somewhat forced, or even desperate, today Starmer largely managed to relate them to his vision for the country.
Before revealing a new four-word slogan to sum up Labour’s guiding principles under his leadership - “Work. Care. Equality. Security.“ - he talked around each as it related to his life, with particularly moving sections focussing on his mother’s terminal illness and the family of a murder victim he worked with as Director of Public Prosecutions.
At its best, the speech found a strong balance between the need for radical change to face the challenges of the day, and reassurances to the public beyond the conference hall that Labour could be taken seriously to implement those changes.
Though relatively light on policy the speech was not entirely without it, and Starmer’s pledges were generally good, if a little scattergun.
If ‘levelling up’ is a political goal which can be interpreted so broadly as to include almost any aspect of policy, then Starmer’s cry of ‘work, care, equality and security” is not much narrower.
He revealed Labour’s plans for the “most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation”, alongside a pledge to hire 850,000 mental health workers and shift the NHS’ focus to preventative rather than emergency care.
Perhaps most importantly though, Starmer settled on a line of attack against Johnson which might actually carry weight.
While his humour and presentation often insulate him against opponents’ charges that he is dangerous or nasty, Starmer will seek to paint him as a clown, or a “trivial man”
In the most effective passage of the speech, Starmer compared himself to Johnson, saying that while the latter was writing columns about his right not to wear a helmet for the Telegraph, Starmer was prosecuting dangerous terrorists.
“I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man,” he said.
“I think he’s a trivial man. I think he’s a showman, a showman with nothing left to show. He’s a trickster who’s performed his one trick. After he said the magic words ‘Get Brexit Done’, his plan ran out. There is no plan.”
With today’s speech, taken alongside the more concrete policy proposals put forward by members of his shadow cabinet in recent days, Starmer is coming closer to demonstrating that under his leadership, Labour does have a plan.
But for all his talk of being more ‘outward looking’ than those who came before, Starmer has so far detailed his plans in an 11,500 word essay published in a political journal, and in a 90 minute speech broadcast in the middle of the working day.
Neither of which are likely to reach the general public.
Starmer has demonstrated enough skill and vision to ward off any imminent challenge to his leadership, and has proven his ability to sell ‘Starmerism’, to the party faithful, at least.
His challenge now will be selling it to the electorate at large. And even considering the heckles and jeers he earned today, they will likely be a far less receptive audience.