Keir Starmer Hails A New "Labour Moment" In An Energised Pitch To Put Party Into Power
Keir Starmer and wife Victoria at Labour conference (Alamy)
Keir Starmer said now is a "Labour moment" in a conference speech that reflected growing confidence within the party that it can win a general election for the first time in two decades.
Starmer sought to present Labour as a credible government in waiting after twelve years in opposition. He announced that as prime minister he would set up a publicly-owned energy company to avoid future energy crises, and boost the NHS workforce, in a speech that positioned the party as an economically responsible, patriotic and on the centre-left.
The Labour leader took to the stage after four days in Liverpool against a backdrop of government crisis, with Labour MPs and members sharing a belief that the party was in its strongest position in many years to defeat the Conservatives.
The new government of prime minister Liz Truss became engulfed by economic chaos after Kwasi Kwarteng's sweeping tax cuts caused the pound to reach its lowest value against the dollar since records began.
In his flagship leader's speech on Tuesday, Starmer likened the state of the country to 1945, 1964 and 1997, when former Labour leaders Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair led the party to election victories.
He said that Labour was now the party of the "centre-ground", which he had changed fundamentally since being elected as leader in 2020 in order to make it fit for government. Prior to Starmer's appointment as leader, after the party suffered its worst defeat since 1935 in the 2019 General Election.
Starmer pledged to put "country before party", and in a clear break from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn used the opening minutes of his speech to pay tribute to the Queen. On Sunday Labour took the unusual step of opening its conference with a rendition of the national anthem and a minute of silence for the late monarch, who died earlier this month.
The Labour leader said the period of national mourning showed the nation at its best, while the other side was a country "all at sea where a cloud of anxiety hangs over working people" due to the ongoing cost of living crisis and widespread inflation.
Starmer, whose party is enjoying its best opinion poll leads over the Conservatives in decades, warned that the two years leading up to the next election, which is expected to take place in 2024, would be "tough" because Tories would "stop at nothing" to secure a fifth term in government.
However, in remarks that encapsulated growing optimism within the party about its electoral prospects, the Labour leader said that "people are starting to raise their sights".
"Because of [the Conservative party's] record, because of the state of Britain, they are getting desperate. With so little that’s good to defend, they lash out," Starmer said.
"We need to be prepared, disciplined, focused.
"Spend each day working to earn the trust of the British people. Meet their attacks with hope. Provide the leadership this country so desperately needs... So, Conference, say it loud and believe it. Britain will deal with the cost-of-living crisis. Britain will get its future back."
While opinion polls suggest that Starmer has successfully grown Labour's popularity since becoming leader, he came into the party's annual conference under pressure to flesh out what he would do if elected prime minister.
In his conference speech, which took place in a week of significant economic instability, Starmer announced he would set up a publicly-owned energy company called Great British Energy, similar to EDF in France, that would "cut energy bills and deliver energy independence for our country".
Earlier in the conference, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said that a Labour government would reverse the government's move to cut the 45 per cent top rate of tax for people earning over £150,000, and use the money raised to expand the NHS workforce, including an additional 7,500 medical students every year.
Starmer said that the way to get the NHS "back on its feet" was with a "stronger NHS workforce".
"Talking to doctors in my local hospital, I said 'the NHS is on its knees, isn’t it'. They said 'no Keir, it’s face down on the floor."
He said that it was "not a hard choice for us" to decide whether to spend money on cutting taxes for high earners or "supporting our NHS".
Louise Haigh, the shadow secretary of state for transport, announced in her speech to conference that a Labour government would take the railways back into public ownership.
Recent Labour conferences have been tense affairs, marred by factional infighting. While some on the Labour left accused Starmer of "mistaking control for unity", most Labour MPs, officials and members who travelled to to a wet and windy Merseyside for the party's annual conference agreed that it was the least fractious get together in several years.
There has long been a battle for the soul of the party, contested by supporters of former leader Corbyn, who wanted to continue his legacy of more left-wing politics, and backers of Starmer who said the party must be dragged back towards the centre-ground in order to win again.
Signs of that ideological conflict were visible at the conference in Brighton last year, two years after Starmer's comfortable victory in the race to succeed Corbyn as Labour leader in 2019.
Andy McDonald, who served in Corbyn's shadow cabinet in the transport brief for four years, dramatically resigned as a shadow minister on the eve of last year's event in a move widely seen as a protest against Starmer's leadership. The current Labour leader was heckled by a small number of members during his conference speech, in another sign of the disunity.
But on this occasion the mood was markedly more harmonious, with Starmer delivering his conference speech without murmer of dissent in the audience.
Speaking to PoliticsHome on Monday night, one shadow cabinet minister said it had been the best conference they had attended since the party was voted out of office in 2010.
The mood had been “buoyant”, one figure on the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) said, adding it was the first conference in years they were looking forward to coming to, and was the first event where they haven’t been heckled or jeered while they were here.
That's not to say there is unanimous glee in the Labour world, however, with Starmer facing pressure from affiliated unions to pursue a more radical agenda. Sharon Graham, general Secretary of Unite, tweeted after the Labour leader's speech that he needed to be "bolder".
The mood in Liverpool was boosted on Monday evening when a YouGov poll for The Times put the party 17 per cent ahead of the Conservatives – Labour's biggest ever lead with the pollster, and its largest lead over the Tories in any poll since 2001.
Senior party figures were reluctant to get carried away, however, warning that the party still faced a major uphill challenge to win a general election for the first time since 2005.
One shadow minister said despite the striking YouGov findings, which suggests Labour is on course to win the next election, they party “could not afford to be complacent”.
“It's great to see that Labour is ahead in the polls, but remember that Ed Miliband was ahead in the years before 2015, and we still lost,” they told PoliticsHome.
“It's important that we get our messaging right, we can’t rely on the Tories just being shit."
Behind the scenes, allies of Starmer say the Labour leader is becoming increasingly confident as his party continues to enjoy big leads in the polls. One friend described him as a "confidence player" – a phrase used to describe a footballer whose performance improves as they develop more belief in their own ability.
With the polls showing no signs of a bounce for Truss, and the economic turmoil expected to continue, the question facing Starmer is whether he can can continue his recent momentum for the next two years and become the first Labour leader to win a general election since 2005.
Additional reporting by Caitlin Doherty and Alain Tolhurst
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe