The new leader had taken charge of the party after a catastrophic defeat. He was not yet sure how much Labour would have to change if it were to see power again, and he knew every step would be greeted by howls of betrayal from some on the left, but he understood that change it must. So in his first leader’s speech to the party conference, he chose to make the assembled activists relive the trauma of their election loss. “Remember how you felt on that dreadful morning of 10 June. Just remember how you felt, and think to yourselves, ‘June the ninth, 1983; never ever again will we experience that.”
That compelling passage of Neil Kinnock’s oratory, delivered in Brighton in that distant age when party conferences were held at the seaside rather than in cyberspace, came to mind as I listened to Sir Keir Starmer delivering his leader’s speech to Labour’s virtual conference. There was an unmistakable echo when he condemned Jeremy Corbyn without naming him by saying: “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security, with your job, with your community and your money.”
It is characteristic of Labour’s tragic history of repeated electoral failure that another “never again” speech was required several decades after the original. Labour is a party obsessed with its past and, at the same time, it is a party that so often fails to learn the lessons from its past. Labour never wins if voters think the party doesn’t like the country it aspires to govern. Labour always loses if voters think the party isn’t to be trusted with their security and the economy.
Some have suggested that Mr Starmer was lucky not to have been speaking to a conference hall packed with Labour activists because that passage of his speech, and others in which he sought to bury his predecessor, would have been barracked by continuity Corbynites. I disagree. Expressions of internal dissent can serve a useful purpose when they dramatise to the public that a new leader is reforming his party. When Tony Blair dropped everyone’s jaws at the 1994 Blackpool conference by announcing that he planned to rewrite clause IV, the average voter, not being expert in the party’s constitution or the theologies of the left, would have struggled to appreciate why it mattered. All was made clear to them when Arthur Scargill, the Marxist leader of the miners’ union, ferociously attacked the modernisation of the party’s credo. Every voter then instantly understood that Labour was changing and in a way most of them would approve.
Mr Starmer couldn’t hope to achieve that level of impactful drama. The age of Covid obliged him to deliver his speech from a socially distanced podium erected in a near-empty arts centre in Doncaster. Lacking the theatre that comes from making an address to a mass gathering, a highly significant speech has not commanded the media or public attention that it deserves.
I call it important for several reasons. First, because he demonstrated that Labour now has a leader who is acutely aware of the party’s multi-volume history of electoral failure and one who doesn’t want to become another of the many chapters devoted to losers. This is one of the many vivid differences with Mr Corbyn, who behaved as if he had won after losing in 2017 and did the same again even after the crushing defeat of 2019. “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to,” was Mr Starmer’s correctly withering verdict. “You don’t look at the electorate and ask them, ‘What were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask, ‘What were we doing?’”
After telling his party that it was “time to get serious” about pursuing power, he praised Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, the only Labour leaders to have secured election victories. This is a refreshing change. After the 2010 defeat, Labour became gripped by a self-destructive compulsion for trashing its own record. Ed Miliband, and Mr Corbyn even more so, often talked as if the party’s 13 years in power between 1997 and 2010 were a long and terrible mistake. This was popular with some activists, but not a formula for success at the ballot box. Why would the average voter be encouraged to choose Labour by Labour’s own leaders bad-mouthing their party’s record? Labour now has a leader who expresses pride in what his party has achieved with power, an essential requisite for aspiring to hold office again.
The Starmer speech also mattered because it gave a definitive answer to the question that has been dangling over him since he became leader in April. His play-it-safe campaign for the job sought to maximise his support by eluding any precise ideological identity, avoiding controversial positions and blandly rehearsing socialist pieties. Some backers from the left voted for him because they thought he would put a more competent face on Corbynism, a belief that he encouraged by issuing “10 pledges”, committing himself to a lot of the Corbynite policy platform. Soft leftists and centrists voted for him in the contrary hope that he would extinguish Corbynism. At the time, I suggested that he would not be able to please these very different groups forever. Someone was going to be disappointed. Someone was going to feel betrayed.
We now know who. He is not going to be Corbynism dressed in a smarter suit. He can’t rename the party New Labour, because Mr Blair has already made that movie. He did the next best thing by using a podium labelled “A New Leadership”.
This is of a piece with his general approach, which is to concentrate on changing Labour’s style, language and positioning to re-establish it as a professional and serious party. This is impressing the public so far. The Opinium poll we publish today has Labour edging ahead in vote share for the first time since Boris Johnson became Tory leader, while a majority of respondents say they believe Mr Starmer is ready to be prime minister.
That’s obviously encouraging for Labour, but polls taken in the midst of the coronavirus crisis are not reliable predictors of what would happen at a general election some years off. His speech left no one any better informed about what Labour will put in its next manifesto. Policy substance was absent.
What we did get was some revealing clues about his broad intentions. He heavily implied that he no longer feels tied to the promises he once made to stay faithful to the Corbynite prospectus. He is using the coronavirus crisis as his get-out-of-jail-free card by arguing that it is transforming the world so radically that it is impossible, even were it desirable, to stop the clock. In one especially telling passage, he remarked that the “questions of 2019 already seem like ancient history” and “we need to be thinking about the questions of 2024 and the 2030s”.
So another thing we now know for sure is that it won’t be a Corbynite manifesto that is offered to the voters next time around. It will be a Starmerish one. Whatever that turns out to be. Making a virtue of his opacity about policy, he said: “We’re not going to win back those we’ve lost with a single speech or a clever policy offer. Trust takes time.” Most of the shadow cabinet are supportive of the leader’s “keep shtoom” strategy on the grounds that it is much too early for Labour to start writing a manifesto. We are in the middle of an epidemic of unknown duration so it makes no sense to be announcing tax and spending plans. After all, the government has just responded to the re-escalation of the crisis by cancelling the budget. We are less than a year into a parliamentary term that could run for five. It is entirely possible that the Tories will switch leaders before the next election and make another change to their own ideological orientation. One member of the shadow cabinet argues: “No one wants to hear what a Labour government would do at the moment.”
One day, though, they will – and then the answers must be coherent, credible and with enough appeal to make Labour competitive for power. The example of Neil Kinnock is both inspirational and cautionary. He put Labour on the road to recovery after the 1983 calamity, but the party did not change either its policies or its reputation with sufficient speed to avoid two further defeats.
Following the Brighton speech, there were more than 13 years to go before Labour finally returned to office. To that, Labour also needs to tell itself “never again”.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer