The moment when it should have become clear to even the most blinkered Tory than Tony Blair was going to be the next Prime Minister must have been during Conference speech in 1996. You know the story. He recalled a Ford Sierra – not Mondeo – owner he had met whilst campaigning. The man was out polishing his car. He was ex-Labour, but he’d bought his council house (and Cosworth) and had started voting Tory.
What did Labour – the party of high taxes and high mortgage rates – have to offer the aspirational? For Blair, that man “crystallised…the basis of our failure.” His instincts were to get on in life, and he thought Labour’s were to stop him. That taught Labour’s most electorally successful leader that his party must understand aspiration. They must out Thatcherite the Thatcherites. Today, Starmer showed – not as eloquently, perhaps, but certainly passionately – that he understands that too.
Aspiration, indeed, was the word that Starmer kept returning to. He laid out his only family background. From a semi-detached pebble-dashed house, he became Director of Public Prosecutions, a Knight of the Realm, and Leader of the Opposition. He did that, he claims, because his parents taught him the values of hard-work and ambition. They never gave up hope that he would have a better life than they did.
Hence why Starmer vowed to make Labour the party of home ownership in Britain today. Hence why he pledged to make Brexit work – despite voting Remain, but, then again, so did Truss – in a way that delivered economic change for those communities who felt abandoned. Hence why he said he saw business as a partner in his new industrial strategy, not a barrier. Hence why he said Labour was, one again, the “political wing of the British people”.
Doing so was much easier after last week’s mini-budget. Whatever its economic virtues, cutting taxes for the well-off in a cost-of-living crisis is an open political goal in which even Gary Neville could score. But if Starmer wants to be the voice of those who want to get on, he can’t go full Bevan on the class war stuff. So he positioned Labour as the party of “fairer”, not higher, taxes – and the party of “sound money” after the financial chaos of the last few days.
Anyone who remembers the last Labour government (or the one before that, or the one before that, or the one…) will naturally raise their eyebrows at this. Economic crisis and Labour government go together as easily as Rupa Huq and being offensive about Kwasi Kwarteng. So Starmer is as keen to move away from that image as he was to suspend the whip from her. His job is made easier by the fact we have been in power for twelve years. Complaining about Gordon Brown might be fun, but it won’t cut it.
Unsurprisingly, the most effective part of his speech was when he lambasted the record of the last three Conservative Prime Ministers. Cameron promised that we were all in this together, and then bailed out bankers on the backs of taxpayers. May came to office following a referendum demanding a changed economy and did not match her rhetoric. Johnson asked us to obey restrictions to fight Covid and presided over a Number 10 that broke the rules as assiduously as most followed then.
You may agree or disagree with Starmer’s reading of recent history. Nonetheless, it does highlight that “fourth time lucky” isn’t the strong message for Tory activists on the doorstep. Yet his own messaging was imperfect. The preoccupation with a “fairer, greener future” was strong on the first half and tedious on the second. Yammering on about wind farms and hydropower is exactly what Johnson did in his speech last year. How did that work out for him?
Of course – as odd as it might seem – there was method to Starmer’s madness. The Greens have been taking council seats off both Labour and the Tories. He will need to peel of their votes if he wants a majority in 2024. That is also why he highlighted so obviously the work he has done in abandoning Corbynism. From praising the Queen to the hilt to receiving a standing ovation for his efforts to root out anti-Semitism, he was clear that this was not the Labour voters rejected last time.
There were still sops to the Corbynistas. A bit of banker-bashing here, proposals for a publicly-owned green energy company there. Yet promises to control immigration, accept Brexit, and partner with business sailed through without booing or heckling. As Starmer intoned the party lore of 1945, 1964, and 1997, it was clear that he has accepted that Labour only wins when it realises British voters want to get on, rather than declare class war. They want stability, not a revolution.
This was not a speech that will be quoted often by future historians. There were no Ford Sierras, new Jerusalems, or “white heats”. Its best line was almost thirty years old. But it did have the confidence of a man already planning for government – and who can’t believe his luck.