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Fri, 15 January 2021

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By Alice Lilly
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Keir Starmer Used His Conference Speech To Break Ties With Labour's Past

Keir Starmer Used His Conference Speech To Break Ties With Labour's Past
3 min read

In just thirty minutes, Keir Starmer used his first party conference speech as Labour leader to upgrade his under “new leadership” catch-line to a full scorched earth position on Jeremy Corbyn.

Speaking in his mother's home town of Doncaster, with social distancing rules meaning there was no audience present, he didn't even mention his predecessor’s name.

Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair got shout-outs. Clearly in Starmer’s mind it is only worth referencing winners.

The new Labour leader is clearly focussed on how to draw back the public and the party’s life-long voters who went Tory in 2019, even if it means upsetting the Corbyn loyalists and potentially vast parts of the membership along the way.

The tone was set by his choice for the warm-up slot: the former MP Ruth Smeeth, who last year said that her experiences with anti-Semitism in the party had left her wondering "whether the Labour party even has the right to exist". 

There was no reference to the working class, or class of any kind, only working people. No mention of the rich or the wealthy or the billionaires. It was a clear shift in approach after years of party conference speeches where Corbyn made much of the poorest being trampled on by the rich and the need for them to pay more into society.

Focus groups in red wall seats post-election have shown repeatedly that attacking someone’s personal wealth goes down very badly with voters. And on the subject of voters, he was clear to say those who voted Tory in 2019 don’t have something wrong with them, or don’t understand what they were voting for. The loss was entirely Labour’s fault.

There was lashings of patriotism too, likely to rile up those on the very left of the party who fear such talk is regressive and takes the party into a space already owned by Boris Johnson.  He spoke of his pride in going to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood from the Queen, while Corbyn will be forever tarnished by the media storm around whether or not he was singing the national anthem with enough gusto.

Sir Keir explained how proud he was: “to be able to give my parents what they said was one of the proudest moments of their lives: to be there, with me, at Buckingham Palace as I was awarded a knighthood for services to criminal justice.”

He stressed how much he loves his country. He repeated the theme right until the end, finishing on: “We love this country as you do. This is the country I grew up in and this is the country I will grow old in. And I want it to be the country I know it can be.”

Competence in opposition was his third theme. He spent almost five minutes detailing what he sees as the government’s response to the coronavirus and Brexit. He honed in on the recent testing fiasco and the threat to break international law on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He presented Johnson as both flippant and arrogant, while he is steadfast, detailed and in control. In a moment that firmly scorched the earth with the Corbyn regime, he pledged to make sure Labour goes into the next election trusted on national security and the economy. He wants to eradicate the two areas the Tories regularly, and often sucessfully, attack the party on. 

In a final plea he said down the barrel of the lens: “And I ask you: Take another look at Labour.”

This was a speech to the country, not to the membership. Lots of card carrying folk won’t have liked it but, today at least, Starmer won’t care.  


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