It is no surprise that Kier Starmer’s “New Leadership” speech at Labour Connected was full of accusations about the Prime Minister, from his handling of Covid-19 to his hand in the decade of austerity that preceded the pandemic. However, the biggest take away from the conference speech was the marked change in the direction of the Party’s rhetoric. After months of being berated for lacking a message beyond “at least I’m not Corbyn,” Starmer has begun to outline a vision for his Labour Party, centring around a national pride that many said Corbyn lacked.
Starmer’s attitude to the past leadership has been unclear at the best of times. Keir being both reluctant to support them for fear of losing swing voters, and reluctant to condemn them and anger the Party’s left wing. His Connected speech continued in this vein, stating that Labour has “granted the Tories a decade of power,” but not going so far as to outright condemn the Corbyn administration. He is right in that the opposition is becoming more credible; Labour’s shift to close criticism of the Conservatives is already proving more popular in the polls than Corbyn’s vague narrative of ‘Tories bad; Labour good.’ However, voters are still unclear as to whether this administration is a clean break from the last, or whether Starmer is picking up where his predecessor left off.
Labour is ridiculously factional, but the public’s knowledge of leaders’ politics often seems to be limited to a dichotomy between Blair and Corbyn. Starmer seems aware of this, and, in the wake of the last election, he appears determined to ensure he is not lumped with the latter. In terms of voters, this seems sensible; Corybn was, rightly or wrongly, labelled with many wrongdoings, and if Starmer is serious about winning power, he must prove that the same do not apply to him. His rebranding is notably personal, leaving aside the rest of Labour’s image until the shadow of Corbyn is gone. His professional background does him, and the Party, many favours in restoring trust in Labour, and presenting a responsible and cohesive image.
While outlining that Labour is in it to win, Starmer worryingly spoke of eradicating antisemitism, as though it is an election campaign effort and not something that should be done regardless of the last election’s result. While it signals his New Leadership righting previous wrongs, Labour needs to be wary of touting this, and similar issues, as something to be proud of, rather than the remnants of a shameful Party history.
Starmer’s Connected speech also had a heady emphasis on Britain’s greatness. Between the references to past Labour figureheads, a sense of pride in Britain was evident, continuing a trend the Labour leader has maintained throughout his leadership so far. Patriotism is a touchy subject, controversial even, due to its connotations of distasteful and harmful nationalism. But in recent political history, it has dominated conversation, and harnessing this wave of enthusiasm seems to make up a large part of a successful campaign – which is above all Starmer’s aim.
Blair’s “things can only get better” mantra began a century that has, so far, seen a steady decline in how things are going. Starmer seems, as all politicians do, determined to change this. His Connected speech peppered with references to positive change that Labour can, and has, brought the UK. Starmer has adopted the type of national pride that saw Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony be such a success; a celebration of British ideas and diversity rather than a clumsy distain for other nations. Patriotism is difficult to get right, especially on the left. The emphasis on “uniting” is key to both giving patriotism a positive narrative, but also to bridging the divisive image that left many unwilling to vote for Corbyn.
This positive tone, maintained throughout the Tory-bashing and party pride that we expect from a party conference, seems at odds with the current Covid climate, but sets up the party well for the future. The Tories’ shambolic handling of the situation has led to their party’s announcements being synonymous with bad news; Starmer’s bright-eyed vision of Britain could be the thing that gets him into power, if he can convey a persuasive vision of how he will change things.
Starmer’s route to change remains a mystery to many, both in the Party, and out of it. His carefully crafted publicity leaves much to the imagination when it comes to policy. A careful balance is needed to satisfy both the next generation of voters that Corbyn was successful in mobilising, and the crucial Red Wall seats that were lost at the last election. Claire Ainsley, Starmer’s Director of Policy, suggested in her 2018 book that policies are only as good as “The context of what and whom the electorate thinks the party or candidate stands for,” which fits with Starmer’s assertion that the 2019 manifesto was overcrowded. This suggests that the narrative Starmer spins will be tighter and more focused, and overshadow the policies he implements.
Between Ainsley’s appointment and the patriotic banner Starmer has begun to lift, there is clearly a shift right for Labour in some respect. As he notes in his New Leadership speech, “Times change – and so do political priorities” – and clearly, Starmer’s priority is firmly getting into office. His speech represented a balancing act, pushing details aside in an impressive bid to please every inch of the Party. Whether successful or not, Starmer’s careful emphasis on positive patriotism seems the key take away from Connected, and will likely remain the focus in the years to come.