Starmer sets out mission to take Labour out of the shadows

By Simon Fitzpatrick, Associate Director, Cicero/AMO

Keir Starmer’s first conference speech as Labour leader had one overriding objective: to communicate in no uncertain terms that his party is under new leadership.

The speech was light on policy but heavy on symbolism and language explicitly designed to begin the arduous job of reconnecting Labour with many of the voters that have deserted the party in recent years.

Starmer spoke in Doncaster, exactly the type of northern, leave-voting area where Labour’s support has been in long-term decline. He was introduced by Ruth Smeeth, the former Stoke MP who lot her seat in December and was one of the MPs most critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, especially on the issue of anti-Semitism. His lectern was emblazoned with the strapline ‘A new leadership’. He even delivered the speech standing in front of an actual red wall.

But as pointed as the imagery was, the language used by Starmer was even more stark. He repeatedly emphasised issues such as family values and national security, areas which the previous leadership was perhaps uncomfortable discussing. He said that, under his leadership, never again would Labour go into an election not trusted by voters with their security, their job, their money or their community. He pledged to make Labour a competent, credible opposition again, but said that alone would not be enough – they need to get serious about winning again too. He never mentioned Jeremy Corbyn by name. He didn’t have to.

If there was strong implicit criticism of Corbyn, there was nothing implicit about the criticism levelled at Boris Johnson, whom Starmer described as “just not serious”. He spoke of the Government’s “serial incompetence” and drew a strong contrast between his own background “defending victims and prosecuting terrorists” while the PM was “writing flippant columns” and “being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes”.

The early polling on Starmer shows that, although not yet widely known, he already polls ahead of his party. This speech shows that he intends to build on that and put himself, his character and his experience at the centre of Labour’s mission to win back support. His tone was serious throughout – you don’t get too many jokes in a Starmer speech – and it is evident that he sees the contrast between his and Johnson’s personalities as a strength, not a weakness.

For anyone eager for detail of what the substance of ‘Starmerism’ might look like, this was not the speech to provide you with answers. There were calls for a national strategy to cut the education gap and to finally get to grips with the social care crisis, but no policy specifics. When it does come however, Starmer gave a strong hint that the next Labour manifesto, while “rooted in Labour values”, will not sound “like anything you’ve heard before”. We should not expect a re-tread of the 2017 or 2019 manifestos therefore.

If one message came through loudest of all, it was simply that Keir Starmer is desperate to turn Labour into a winning party. He wants to head the real government, not the Shadow one, summed up in the memorable soundbite: “Until we come out of the shadows, this party can’t change anything.”

The road out of the shadows will be a long and difficult one for Labour. But they have a leader who is deadly serious about completing the journey.

Get in Touch

Simon Fitzpatrick

Associate Director