September 27, 2022

Ever since he was elected Labour leader, Keir Starmer has been intent on disproving the first maxim of politics: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. He secured his greatest triumph when party delegates belted out “God Save The King” this weekend on their conference’s opening day. There were no boos or catcalls — just genuine passion.

This is a changed party. Starmer no longer needs to insist that his party is patriotic; he has shown it. The Union Jack has displaced the Palestinian flags brandished by conference delegates in the dark days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But it is a critical time for Starmer and his party. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng have set out their government’s brutally simple approach to economics: the UK needs growth, and that can only be achieved through tax cuts and deregulation. The markets are already delivering their verdict, with the pound on the slide and inflation on the rise.

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What is Labour’s answer? This is their week – the only one in the year when they can, and must, dominate the headlines with new ideas, policies and soundbites. As far as they go, this year’s slogans are passable: “A fresh start with Labour”; “A fairer, greener future”. They are well-meaning, but woolly. What the voters need to know is what’s in it for them — what is the Labour offer? How does it deliver for individuals, their families and their businesses?

The critique is clear. The Government’s “mini-budget” last week wasn’t fair; it amounts to merely throwing cash at the 1% of top earners. Labour should punch that bruise and relish the irony of a government committed to free markets being schooled by those same markets. The Party should also avoid the language of class warfare. It delights conference delegates when speakers attack Tories for supporting the rich, but this doesn’t answer the question of what Labour would do differently.

Yesterday, in her speech on the economy, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves made a decent effort of doing just that. She reclaimed the mantle of “sound money” from the Tories, attacking them for rising borrowing — including the largest single increase in government borrowing since 1972. She outlined a “green prosperity plan” that would prioritise renewable and nuclear power and free the UK from dependence on imported fossil fuels. Perhaps more strikingly, Reeves had Labour conference on its feet with her statement that Labour was now the party of economic responsibility.

But in the end, the Labour case has to be made by its Leader. More than 200 opinion polls in a row have given Labour a lead over the Conservatives; the most recent have been so commanding that they would reverse the 2019 Tory landslide and give Labour a majority. But there’s still a question mark over whether Labour’s lead is really secure. This is where Starmer must step in.

His challenge? In focus group after focus group, swing voters say they don’t know enough about him or what he stands for. His opportunity? Voters’ ignorance about Starmer means he still has time to define himself — though that is fast running out. With the Conservative government attempting a reset with their new leader, and with the mini-budget unravelling, there is the chance for him to say: “Take a second look at me, and a long hard look at her.” His conference speech has to win the attention, and then the hearts and minds of voters.

As any football fan knows, the first question Starmer has to answer is: “Who are you?” There’s a simple formula political campaigners use: voters only need to know three things about a politician to understand them. Here’s what Starmer’s should be: first, he loves the NHS, which his mother devoted her working life to, and which in turn cared for her so well when she fell ill. Second, he loves football, supports Arsenal and is a nifty five-a-side player himself. And third, he likes a beer. Get that across. And repeat it. The best answer to the accusation that he is dull isn’t some worthy line about “serious times need serious people”: it’s far better to simply say: “No-one who’s been to the pub with Keir thinks he’s boring!”

These three things would colour in Starmer’s character and reassure voters. But they also need to believe in his judgement. This is harder to demonstrate in opposition, except during fights with your own party — which he has done well by suspending his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

To be truly seen as the alternative Prime Minister, Starmer needs to show what he stands for, and what difference he’d make in Number 10. This is the retail offer and it has to be stark and personal. Not just about how a greener future will save the planet, but how it will save you money tomorrow. Not just what the industrial plan will invest in, but what jobs you will be able to get. Not just an end to Tory tax giveaways, but what Labour’s fair taxes will mean for families.

This is the last chance Starmer has before the next General Election to showcase who Labour is, what it has to offer, and how it has changed. Last year’s post-pandemic conference dealt with his internal dilemmas, stamping Starmer’s authority on the party with rule changes. Next year’s will be the pre-election gathering, given Truss is expected to go to the country during 2024.

Just look how far Starmer has brought his party. In 2019, Labour suffered its worst defeat since the Thirties, yet the party is now electorally competitive. It took him just two years to achieve what it took Neil Kinnock two elections. And all this in opposition to Boris Johnson, who was the most electorally successful Tory leader for nearly 30 years and who appeared to have remade the electoral landscape by capturing Labour seats and voters. This conference — and his conference speech — has to be another turning point. The race is on. And it will not be won by being slow and steady; it will be won by flair and momentum.

Labour has shown both at conference this week, but Liz Truss has changed to Tories too. She has shown a willingness to roll the dice from her very first days in office. Sir Humphrey would have called the mini-budget “bold, very bold”. There will be more where that came from when she unveils the deregulatory side of her agenda. When that happens, Labour will also need to be bold. No opposition can afford to wait and hope for the next election to fall into their laps.