Following a strong start, now is the time to sow the seeds of ‘Starmerism’

Keir Starmer must now be used to delivering speeches in unusual circumstances. Having been elected Leader of the Labour Party at the height of the pandemic, he had to deliver a pre-recorded acceptance speech from his house. This week, he had to do the same again for his address to the TUC annual conference, whilst self-isolating as he awaited the result of a COVID test for a member of his family. Now he has the honour of being the first Party Leader to deliver a keynote speech at his Party’s annual conference in a virtual format. Having so far surprised many in SW1 with his performance to date, what does he need to do to exceed expectations this coming week?

Starmer goes into ‘conference season’ in a better than expected position. When he first took over from Jeremy Corbyn, many did not expect him to  make such an immediate impact, but the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a series of policy U-turns over the summer have given him a platform on which to build. He has also picked his battles well, avoiding confrontation with the public on so-called ‘culture war’ issues by criticising the way the Coulston statue was removed in Bristol, disagreeing with the BBC’s decision not to perform Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms, and condemning the Extinction Rebellion blockade of newspaper printing factories a couple of weeks ago.

On Brexit, the paramount culture war issue of our time, perhaps conscious of his previous reputation as the chief architect of Labour’s eventual support for a second referendum, Starmer has merely goaded the Government on the need to keep its number one election promise – namely, to ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Starmer and his top team have been relentless in scrutinising the Government’s handling of the pandemic and have been drawing clear blue water between the two leaders, especially around the issue of competence.

Now, however, Starmer needs to set out the positive case for himself. To this end, he can draw upon the successful example of the recently held Democratic National Convention which was due to meet in person last month but had to be moved to a virtual setting much like this year’s Labour Conference.

Firstly, much like the Democrats, Labour is confronting a Leader that the public knows well. This includes his flaws and the handling of the pandemic. If they make it all about Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, Labour will lose the chance to improve the standing of its own leader, who so far is well liked but not well known.

Secondly, the format in itself is an advantage to Starmer. The Labour Leader is – often a bit unfairly – criticised for his perceived lack of charisma, and is not a natural public speaker in the way the Prime Minister is. The same is true for Joe Biden who, albeit a more empathetic politician than Starmer, is less confident in his delivery. This is why a more intimate ‘fireside chat’ rather than a big set piece speech might help Starmer cut through with the public that so far have mostly seen him in the House of Commons chamber. A short address in which he talks about himself and his values will help him connect more with the public at large.

And finally, because of the very nature of the conference, the Labour Leader can both look back on the past six months while also looking forward, and start sketching out what ‘Starmerism’ will look like. Without the pressure of having to deliver a big speech in front of the Party faithful, Starmer can craft a speech without unnecessary attack lines but ones that reminds the public of the gravity of the situation the country faces, drawing a direct link to the Government’s failures – on the initial lockdown, on track and trace, and now on testing.

But at the same time Starmer needs to start telling voters what it is they would get from a Labour Government. This doesn’t mean a laundry list of policies, but a framework in which a Starmer-led Government would operate. After a decade of Tory rule, the Labour Leader is inching ahead of the Prime Minister in most surveys of who would be the best Prime Minister. He is the only opposition leader with positive ratings at this stage for over a decade. The Party however lags behind, even if the polls have significantly narrowed since April.

By sowing the seeds of what ‘Starmerism’ would look like, the Labour Leader and his Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, who will also give her first conference speech next week, can begin to win back trust with the public after more than ten years. The country is at a crossroads and while the Tories may not be trusted as much as they were even only ten months ago, Labour still has a long way to go before the public will look at it as a Government-in-waiting. Next week’s virtual gathering needs to kickstart that process. If Starmer can manage that, the long road back to Government will become that little less steep.

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Dan Julian

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