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Why Labour? Starmer sets out to answer that question… without sparkle

Keir Starmer
By Gareth Jones
12 October 2023
Public Affairs
labour party conference
Keir Starmer

The feeling of being on the verge of power had a palpable effect on the atmosphere at Labour conference in Liverpool this week. It created an upbeat mood certainly among the many attendees. But also, one of caution – one of the overriding priorities in the party was of not wanting to mess things up. This meant that everyone was being disciplined in their messaging, especially frontbench MPs, but also meant there were very few things being announced – out of fear that any major new policies could be used against them by the Conservatives in the run up to the election.

This naturally was causing a degree of frustration among some delegates, media, and business representatives. So, there were high hopes that some of this appetite would be addressed in the main event on Tuesday afternoon – the leader’s speech. The bar had been set by the Shadow Chancellor on Monday in an assured speech about economic renewal and public finances but there was a need to hear Sir Keir Starmer set out the answer to the trailed question “Why Labour?” and there was an expectation that he would begin to flesh out his programme for a future Labour government with some detailed policy announcements.

But we didn’t really get that. Instead, we got a thematic speech outlining the leader’s intended governing style and outlook, and perhaps most importantly of all – his values.

Much has been said about Starmer’s progress in changing the Labour Party since the nadir of defeat under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. Here, Starmer sought to take the next step and firmly claim the centre ground, position the Labour party as “a party of service” and “totally focused on the interests of working people.” A Party that in government would take care of the “big questions” – namely the economy and public services – and allow people to get on with their lives.

Within this positioning, there was a striking amount of class politics. Starmer spoke of challenges breaking the "class ceiling" and his own working-class background -- and more generally he talked about anxieties and burdens of working people and how they are being affected by the cost-of-living crisis. The fact he felt so comfortable in talking about class is probably a recognition that the general national mood of economic anxiety and fatigue now extends beyond working class people and into the middle classes and offering the prospect of Labour Government that shoulders the burden and provides stability in an age of insecurity is a messaging that appeals to the majority of the country.

Just as notable as the class politics was the fact that Starmer eschewed much of the topics that occupied those at Conservative Conference last week. There was no mention of immigration or culture war issues such as trans-rights and Brexit was barely mentioned, and this was clearly deliberate. Taken together, you can see that Labour’s strategy is to place the economy and economic security (such as the provision of well-paid skilled jobs and affordable housing) front and centre of their pitch to voters and frame the national debate around that.

This does, of course, beg the question of how a Labour Government would actually grow the economy. Here, Starmer set out an argument that is likely to form the basis of the Party’s messaging in election year. Essentially it is this -- there’s no quick fix, no tax cut or quick supply-side reform that’s going to turn the UK economy around. The main things that will difference -- such as infrastructure investment, green energy and building more houses -- will take years but can be achieved with the right reforms and long-term ‘mission government’. In order to get that you need a stable government with the right priorities, which we have lacked in the past 13 years. This may not be the most exciting of arguments, but Labour believes this is the compelling message to the electorate and positions Starmer effectively in contrast to the chaos and confusion of the Conservative Party over the past few years.

Shortly after the speech ended, the Labour Party emailed members, offering them the chance to buy ‘Sparkle with Starmer’ limited edition t-shirts – in reference to the protester who threw glitter over him at the start of the speech. The slight irony is that Starmer’s pitch to country was not really ‘sparkly’ in any way. It was serious, worthy speech that Labour would be in it for the long-haul and would do the hard work of sorting out the economy, the environment, and the NHS. Starmer will be hoping that, at this moment in time, this is exactly what Britain wants.