27 September 2022

Starmer’s big pitch to Middle England has thrown down the gauntlet to Liz Truss


Keir Starmer’s conference keynote speech, lasting just under an hour, shows just how much has changed under his leadership of the Labour Party.

He offered to the party faithful their bread-and-butter on the NHS and publicly owned energy, while also aiming squarely at Middle England – and, crucially, SNP-dominated Scotland. 

An early tribute to the Queen – ‘a remarkable sovereign’ – set the tone for a speech that stuck resolutely to the centre ground. With Labour delegates singing the national anthem at conference for the first time a couple of days ago, the approach from Team Starmer is as clear as day – respecting Britain’s traditional institutions is critical to winning over cultural and constitutional conservatives. And he was explicit about his targeting those potential Tory switchers with lines like: ‘If you voted for a government to step in on your side… then I say to you that is what I will deliver.’ 

It certainly signals a very different atmosphere to the days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, when the party was run in spectacularly amateurish fashion by anti-monarchist pseudo-revolutionaries.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that small ‘c’ conservatism is of a piece with many voters on the centre-left and, whose own traditionalism Starmer tapped into with references to his working-class upbringing in the 1970s. His description of a pebble-dashed semi, with two hard-working parents offering the ‘gift of opportunity’ was as solidly centrist a message as you could imagine. Indeed, this was a speech peppered with talk of family stability, community spirit, pride, the public’s desire for democratic control, economic self-sufficiency, and – importantly – a points-based immigration system.

Labour sometimes has a habit of appearing overly dour and gloomy, which is an especially easy trap to fall into when much of your day job is slating the current government – so his reference to the ‘quiet hope’ of his upbringing brought some light to proceedings, along with the shade thrown at Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.

The traditional Tory pitch that family stability, employment and frugal household spending can provide financial security, no longer hold in this cost-of-living crisis – and Starmer hammered home this point. His call for more home ownership and well-paid jobs – both in short supply – will also resonate with younger people who aspire to get on the housing ladder and start a family.

Of course, it’s easy to say all of this stuff on a conference podium. As the current government are rapidly finding out, putting your ideas into action is quite another matters. But today’s speech was the clearest sign yet that Starmer has a pitch that can make inroads into a post-Brexit electorate that values both economic and cultural security. He was helped by the timing here – government flailing so visibly makes Starmer’s sometimes rather stolid style come across as reassuring, and a far cry from the tribal head-banging that accompanied his predecessor’s leadership.

A speech is just a speech though, and Labour still has a pretty serious branding problem when it comes to issues such as immigration and social cohesion. Those issues have been given fresh relevance by the unsavoury recent events in Leicester, a largely Labour-voting city that has witnessed sectarian disorder and integration issues with ‘new and emergent communities’.

Likewise the party still has a problem with some of its backbenchers making extraordinarily divisive, offensive comments. Today it was the turn of Rupa Huq, who told a fringe panel that Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng was ‘superficially’ black, but that you wouldn’t think he was black if you heard him on the Today programme. In fairness to Keir Starmer, he dealt with this astonishingly racist comment admirably briskly by removing the Labour whip from Huq – but her comments belie a deeper problem with the section of the left that believe that ambition, aspiration and high educational achievement are somehow inauthentic for people from ethnic minorities. As I’ve written before on CapX, the idea that ethnic minorities who support the Conservatives are somehow ‘race traitors’ is worryingly pervasive and profoundly wrong.

There was a time when I doubted whether Starmer, with his nasal voice, halting delivery and disastrous ultra-Remainer credentials, could ever hope to become Prime Minister. After this surprisingly smooth, uneventful conference for Labour, that prospect no longer seems so fanciful. Liz Truss is only a few weeks into the job, but she faces an almighty challenge to wrest back momentum when she takes to the stage in Birmingham a week from now.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert in social cohesion and institutional trust.

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