16 May 2023

Whisper it, but Keir Starmer may finally have found his voice


A speech to a centre-left conference without a TV camera in sight doesn’t scream ‘history in the making’, but the one Keir Starmer delivered on Saturday morning may just have been that.

Sir Keir Starmer’s address to the Progressive Britain Conference might have been billed a ‘landmark’ event, but it may well have marked the moment the Labour leader finally settled on a language and framing that could win him the next election.

What was striking about the speech was the honest, plain language Starmer used to talk about the challenges faced by millions of ordinary people. Nor did he try to sugarcoat these issues or pretend there were simple solutions if we just get rid of the Nasty Tories.  Equally notable was his unashamedly traditionalist diagnosis of the problems plaguing communities all over the UK and the need for ‘stability, for order [and] security’.

One passage in particular stood out:

“We must understand that there are precious things – in our way of life, in our environment, in our communities – that it is our responsibility to protect and preserve, to pass on to future generations.

“If that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care. Somebody has got to stand up for the things that make this country great and it isn’t going to be the Tories.”

That prospectus will, of course, not be popular with everyone. When I tweeted praise for a few of these passages, a gaggle of Corbynites immediately descended. What better evidence that Sir Keir is really on to something?

But it’s not just the left of the party that this speech was repudiating. Starmer also seemed to be dropping some of the future-gazing optimism that Tony Blair peddled to post industrial communities – snake oil that ultimately led us to the political rage of Brexit.

Indeed, if you really want to know why the ‘realignment’ of British politics happened, just head to Teesside. There you will find the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art that New Labour built, instead of developing a distinct, coherent and local industrial strategy that would have helped local people navigate an uncertain post-industrial economic landscape. Blair’s government even used to talk about importing a continental ‘cafe culture’ to the towns of northern England. That fast-and-loose approach to people’s heritage and way of life was always jarring, if not outright patronising. Thankfully, Starmer doesn’t seem to be making the same mistake.

Rather than someone trying to sell a lofty ‘vision’, it looks like we finally have a Labour leader who understands voters’ day-to-day struggles and how politicians need to respond. What we might also now be witnessing is the victory of a form of (somewhat diluted) Blue Labour over the Blairites, some of whom may still see Starmerism as their route to power. There is still plenty of hope in what Starmer is saying, but it’s grounded in reality, rather than synth-heavy 90s pop anthems.

I run a lot of focus groups and, while I’ve not tested the messages in this particular speech, I feel very confident they would be well received in the kind of places that Labour needs to win at the next election. Crucially, it’s the kind of language that lower middle class voters in the Red Wall readily understand. Starmer is talking about civic pride, jobs, crime, and high streets. He’s talking about the issues, both big and small, that drove many voters to vote Tory for the first time in their lives in 2019 and for whom, at least so far, ‘levelling up’ has been a damp squib.

Whisper it, but on Saturday the Labour leader might finally have found his voice. And it sounds like a winner to me.

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Ed Dorrell is a Director at Public First.

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