Sir Keir Starmer’s first in-person speech to a Labour conference concerned his party rather more than the country. The Labour leader had little to say about how he would alleviate the cost-of-living crisis looming for Britain’s poorer households. Nor did he prescribe a solution to a petrol situation so grave that British soldiers could be delivering fuel in the coming days. Sir Keir accused the government of having “no plan in place”. Carpe diem – seize the day – was Sir Keir’s advice to the prime minister. Yet he did not take advantage of the opportunity to tell the country what Labour’s alternative proposition was and how the party would fix a broken system.
Instead, Sir Keir sought to answer two questions about the party’s identity: how it responds to the left and what it looks for in its leader. It is clear that the Labour leadership wants to marginalise its left wing. A divided party is never a good look. Sir Keir’s ability to unite his warring party depended on whether he could articulate a vision that the bulk of the grassroots, trade unions and MPs could get behind.
His speech was in places witty, warm and anti-Tory. His line to “make Brexit work” was brave, given his role as a prominent remainer. He had a strong law-and-order message and made a welcome pledge to recruit more teachers. With polls suggesting that only one in 10 voters thinks he’s been a “good” or “great” leader, this was a pitch to his party for more time to show he would be a better prime minister than Boris Johnson.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes,” Mark Twain is reputed to have said. Every 40 or 50 years, Labour’s history seems to rhyme. In one cycle, beginning with George Lansbury in 1931, radical Labour leaders emerged in the aftermath of economic crises that ravaged the public realm. Such periods allow for radical views to become mainstream.
Sir Keir’s assessment is that the leftward turn of the last decade resonates more with the party membership than the wider public. To keep the grassroots on board, Sir Keir lifted some of his speech’s big policy announcements – such as home insulation – from the 2019 manifesto.
Sir Keir’s big economic idea is a moral one and emerges from the historian David Landes who, according to the Labour leader, argued that Britain’s industrial revolution was sparked by “responsive, honest government”. The implication was that an incorruptible figure like Sir Keir is necessary for the country to ride “the wave of the future”. This argument is rather more specious than sound. However, it was heartening to hear Sir Keir say that the UK needed an industrial strategy that could encompass not just wind turbines and genome editing, but using robotic technology in the NHS to free up hospital beds.
Britain has eased pandemic restrictions, but the country is not out of danger. A more virulent Covid strain could emerge and see a spurt of new cases. Sir Keir says his pitch is founded on “work, care, equality and security”. Yet Labour’s leader said nothing about the end of the furlough scheme, which will withdraw support from a million people in firms that face higher debts and uncertain future sales. The end of the crisis-related uplift to universal credit, which potentially plunges more than 800,000 people into poverty, did not feature prominently in Sir Keir’s peroration.
The welfare state is likely to return to its pre-Covid levels and cause the flaws and inequities exposed by the pandemic to worsen. Starmerism offers Britain a fresh approach to leadership and political culture. Labour is working its way towards a new diagnosis. The country needs him to seize the agenda when the chance arises.