Out of the shadows or a lone voice in the wilderness?
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer delivered his first headline address to party conference since winning the leadership election back in April this morning. Given the state Labour found itself following the contentious leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and their disastrous election defeat in December, Starmer should've expected the complete attention of the press. Unfortunately for him Coronavirus and the demands of social distancing robbed him of his right to deliver this speech to a packed conference centre of eager labour delegates. Added to that Boris Johnson's announcement of further restrictions in response to the surge of a second wave meant that Starmer lost any hope of being heard today.
For once Boris Johnson might actually thank Coronavirus for denying Starmer his time in spotlight. The speech might not go down in history as the game charger which Starmer was hoping for but it definitely achieved its goal - we now know how he plans to run the Labour party. However, for all the talk of new leadership and moving on from the toxic legacy of the Corbyn years, Starmer's vision for success is clearly rooted in the past, a Blairite past.
After a slightly awkward start Starmer took little time to give the party a hard lecture in realism and gave a not so subtle hint that he intended to resurrect New Labour. Exorcising Labour's demons regarding their two most controversial leaders was probably easier done in an empty room and one wonders whether he would have been so bold delivering the same message in front of a packed audience. Burying Corbyn will definitely keep the parliamentary Labour party happy but it is not yet clear how it will go down amongst the grassroots. For the last four years the party membership has been in a state of civil war, old association executives has been taken over by insurgent Momentum Corbynistas and a fight for the very soul of the party over antisemitism has dominated press coverage.
It was brave to take on Labour's troubled past with Tony Blair so early in his leadership and it was a conversation that was long needed. There was a quite damning statistic which Starmer repeatedly highlighted; in the 75 years since their groundbreaking victory over Winston Churchill in 1945 there have only been three Labour winners - Attlee, Wilson and Blair. If Labour have any chance of defeating the Tories in 2024 they will need to achieve an election feat greater than Blair's landslide in 1997. Starmer undoubtedly has an uphill battle in convincing his party to channel Blair's winning tactics.
Dragging the Labour party into the future is a struggle shared by both Blair and Starmer, but one problem which Blair didn't have to contend with was the North and Scotland. Starmer on the other hand cannot rely on any former Labour stronghold and needs to rebuild trust in Labour across the whole UK. He was right to say that the debate over leave vs remain is over but building a movement which simultaneously appeals to the middle classes while winning back traditional working class voters will require more than rhetoric.
His vision of making Britain the best country to grow up and grow old in is all well and good but eventually he will need to start sharing what that means in terms of policy. So far his approach has been to lean on his reputation for competency, which might work for as long as Boris is PM but might not if the Tories decide to oust him before the next election (which is more than a possibility). Also important to highlight was Anneliese Dodds' calls for fiscal responsibility during her speech which attacked the Chancellor for recklessness on spending during the pandemic. While it's refreshing to have a shadow chancellor who actually understands economics it's not clear how she plans to balance books, including the huge COVID19 bill, and deliver on Keir's vision of a future Britain.
" Labour needs to come out of the shadows...if you lose an election you deserved it"
Strong words, and not the upbeat message we have come to expect from a new leader at their first conference. However, after four years of delusional leadership it is encouraging for Labour that they have a leader who clearly gets it; Labour is no longer trusted, not even amongst their most adherent supporters and they need to win that trust back.This speech was a first, necessary and somewhat painful first step towards credible opposition but it's a long road to the next general election and the current pandemic has demonstrated how quickly the political landscape can change. Whether or not the party listens to Sir Keir's telling off could very well determine if they step out of the shadows and into government or remain lost in the political wilderness of opposition.