11 October 2023

Make no mistake – Labour is Keir Starmer’s party now


The first standing ovation for Starmer’s speech was about Labour being a changed party. The second was for his making it very clear that Labour stands firmly behind Israel. 

Make no mistake: This is Starmer’s party now. 

He couldn’t have scripted the protest moment better. A wally with glitter and no message gave Starmer the opportunity to show his ‘no drama Starmer’ persona in full. Casually removing his jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves made him look like a man ready for business. 

And importantly, business is ready for Starmer. Last night at I was at the Pullman Hotel bar desperately trying to break through the scrum to get a drink. A few years ago, that bar would have been full of people in T-shirts with incomprehensible slogans, but this year it was young men (mostly) in suits – and they were still wearing their suit jackets after midnight and five pints. The lobbyists were there in force. 

As an old-fashioned lefty, I don’t know if my heart always approves of that. But, as a pragmatic lefty desperate to see a Labour government, my head is delighted. I will gladly take that deal for the new housing Starmer announced, the secure economy talked of by Rachel Reeves and the plethora of working rights that Keir Starmer rightly says will lead to both economic and personal prosperity. 

I’ve been attending conference since 2002. Through the hard times and the good. Labour was desperately trying to balance a giddy optimism with not looking complacent – and they didn’t always manage it. This is a party that feels like it has all the momentum behind them. 

Speaking of which, Momentum (the capitalised version) was really nowhere to be seen. Yes, The World Transformed subtweet of a conference took place. But in previous years, speakers there would be traipsing back and forth the mile from TWT to the formal conference. This year, there was just a lot less of that. The hard left have seemingly been vanquished into irrelevance. 

Thank God this wasn’t the conference at which they were in their element. I genuinely don’t think the Labour Party could have survived Corbyn being the one to respond to the horrific events in Israel. Starmer – on the other hand – was the perfect person to do so. He was somber and clear on this abhorrent terrorist act. There was no waffle, no both-sideism. And while the conflict in the Middle East is long,protracted and complicated, what happened at the weekend is not. And nor should the response be. And if you want a sign that Labour has changed, the people waving the Palestinian flags were outside the conference protesting the people on the inside. They were not on the conference floor. 

There were several standout stars of this conference. As I said at the top, this is Starmer’s party now. But his confidence in that is demonstrated when he allows others to shine. The response to Rachel Reeves’ speech was almost as ecstatic as it was to Starmer’s. There were seven standing ovations (Keir had 13) and both were standing room only. 

The other big stars were Leader of the Scottish Labour Party Anas Sarwar and newly elected MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, Michael Shanks. The two toured the reception circuit getting a well-deserved victory lap. Sarwar is a very impressive politician. He has, of course, been lucky in his opposition as the SNP implosion has been sharp and severe. But a talented politician has the tactical nous to know how to take advantages of such opportunities. Sarwar convinced UK Labour to give him the space and resources to remake the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Recent polling shows that this happened. 

For Keir’s speech, I hosted a Fabian Society watch party at least 10 minutes from the conference centre. Over an hour before the speech, we had to close the doors as we were over capacity. We weren’t even the overflow room – we were the overflow of the overflow of the overflow. And at the end, in that room where we were – essentially – just watching television, there too was a standing ovation. 

This was the best speech I have seen Keir Starmer give. And I said the same thing last year too. I was right both times. His growing into the role may have sometimes felt slow and frustrating, but if you’re going to get this good – do it for the last pre-election conference. 

Electorally, Labour has a mountain to climb. The party had its worse defeat in nearly a century in 2019. To win again, it will need to win in seats it hasn’t been competitive in for 20 year. This is the reality that might hit Labour’s optimistic conference in the face come an election. 

But every step Labour gets right on its journey to a return to government is a good one. And this conference was a giant leap. 

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Emma Burnell is Director of Political Human.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.