From pure economic self-interest, Keir Starmer’s speech today might have convinced me to vote Labour, had I not been odd enough to have been a Tory member since the tender age of 15.
Obviously, that’s not the easiest confession for the Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome to make. In my defence, it shows Starmer’s address achieved its one overriding objective: to try and convince Tories weary of thirteen years of infighting and undelivery that it’s time they turned to Labour.
Starmer made this explicit. To those Conservatives who “look in horror” as their party indulges in “populism and conspiracy”, who want a party that fights “for our union, our environment, the rule of law [and] family life” then “Britain already has one”: his Labour party. Audacious? Certainly. But not outlandish.
The Labour leader’s central theme was security – one made unexpectedly clear by the protestor who burst onto the stage at the speech’s start to douse him in glitter. He brushed off the interruption, stripped off his jacket, and rolled up his sleeves. But as funny as he might have looked, what if it had been acid, not glitter? Starmer’s efforts to bolster security should begin with his own conference.
Still, he relished the opportunity to suggest Labour was once again not only one of idle protest. He rattled off the achievements of their last period in government – from Sure Start to peace in Northern Ireland – in an effort to contrast “13 years of things can only get better” with “13 years of things have only got worse”. If Starmer’s differences from Tony Blair remain glaring, he does at least understand that answering “why Labour” is vital to campaign and governing with coherence.
The, erm, mission of his “mission government” was familiar: to “break the stranglehold of…decline”. He pledged to bring Britain “towards a decade of national renewal” by facing down “the age of insecurity”. That insecurity is both domestic – Starmer aims to help those in “survival mode” due to cost-of-living pressures and “take our streets back” from crime and disorder – and international.
Echoing Rachel Reeves, he suggested that “the world is becoming a more volatile place” due to climate change, terrorism, technological change, and the war in Ukraine. A year ago Starmer was a man who couldn’t believe his luck. This year he was conscious of the unpropitious circumstances in which he might enter government. Energy independence, reshoring manufacturing, engaging with our allies: all were required to shelter Britain against the storm.
But it was a more immediate geopolitical crisis that he devoted the most attention to. Starmer’s language was pointed: he “utterly condemns” the murder of innocent Israelis “killed in cold blood by the terrorists of Hamas”. He received cheers as he explained that whilst his party still believed in a two-state solution, “Israel must always have the right to defend her people”.
The change from his predecessor could not have been more stark. One can only wish it hadn’t been occasioned by tragedy. Throughout, Starmer’s tone was serious, even statesmanlike – world away from the priggish hauteur regularly chronicled by our Contributing Editor.
He warned his party that government would not be easy. “If you think our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm, that in 1964 it was to modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology, that in 1945, to rebuild a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice, then in 2024, it will have to be all three.” Return to your constituencies, and prepare for a long hard slog.
Yet it was in explaining how Labour would achieve these weighty ambitions that Starmer was at both his most daring and his most opaque. Like Reeves, he pledged that Labour would fight the next election on the issue of economic growth. Not only because Britain’s productivity remains stagnant, but because he was willing to “bulldoze through” the planning system that holds back building.
This is the part of Starmer’s speech that would have twenty-somethings voting Labour for sheer material interest alone – if they weren’t, barring moi, already overwhelmingly planning to do so. He pledged a series of New Towns, 1.5 million new homes, and plans to build on what he labelled “the Grey Belt”. In encroaching on the Tory shires, he draws a contrast with Michael Gove’s focus on increasing density in (Labour) cities.
Portraying Labour as “the builders” against an anti-building Conservatives is not entirely fair. Under the Tories, housebuilding did reach a 30-year high. And in his recent opportunity to support getting homes built by overturning nutrient neutrality rules, Starmer chose short-term political oneupmanship over the national interest.
Yet Sunak didn’t even mention the housing crisis in his speech last week – backing building long since sacrificed to appease NIMBY backbenchers. A century ago, Noel Skelton aimed to make the Conservatives the party of “property-owning democracy”. That’s a title Starmer is happily pinching for Labour – along with an ambition to “finally transform the NHS”. What it will be transformed into remains to be seen.
But for all Starmer’s efforts to place his tanks on Tory lawns, the former editor of Socialist Alternatives still struggled to speak like a Conservative in several crucial areas. Fiscal discipline comes hard: the funding for his grand plans for the public sector remains vague, with the raid on non-doms and imposition of VAT on private school fees doing a lot of heavy lifting. As I mentioned yesterday, a Labour government would struggle to keep its pledge not to raise taxes.
I also counted only one mention of Brexit – in the context a Conservative failure to plan for it accordingly – and one of migration, with the latter in the context of “criminal gangs” exploiting the “vulnerability” of those migrating. Labour’s policies in both areas can best be summed up as a hope that getting along better with our European neighbours will unlock opportunities hitherto barred to the Tories.
CCHQ’s attack lines are thus obvious. Despite his patriotic rebrand, Starmer was still a leading advocate of a Second Referendum. His 1.5 million new homes would quickly be filled by those flows of legal and illegal migrant flows that he has no interest in controlling – especially if he cancels a functioning Rwanda scheme.
According to Matt Goodwin, immigration remains the third most important issue for all voters, and the second for those who opted for the Conservatives in 2019. If deportations to Rwanda are working by the next election, it will be an obvious dividing line. If not, Sunak can always pull the emergency cord marked “Leaving the ECHR”.
But one suspects waving the Brexit bloody shirt is an option few will be enthused by. As Starmer suggested today, most voters simply want politics out of their lives after years of constant Tory turbulence. His pitch is simple. Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – strong and stable government with him, or chaos with Rishi Sunak. The game commences, for the usual fee, plus expenses.
So rather unusually, I find myself agreeing with Peter Mandelson: the next election has become Starmer’s to lose. Sunak has tried his best to be the candidate of change. But he has thirteen years of baggage to contend with. By contrast, Starmer spoke with the confidence of a man both ready for an election and excited by what would come after it.
Should he be? As I noted yesterday, a government run by Sue Gray and Ollie Robbins will hardly push radical change through Whitehall. Our darkening international scene may also mean Starmer faces a greatest-hits package of the same crises that derailed previous Labour governments: war in Asia, financial crises, union militancy.
A decade of national renewal may well become another one of decline. If any Tory considering switching to Labour feels disillusioned today, they ain’t seen nothing yet. Better the devil you know?
But that’s for another day. Starmer gave his speech sparkling against a red backdrop labelled ‘Britain’s future’. For better or for worse, it’s becoming hard not to suspect that’s what he is.