With a week’s hindsight, and especially in light of Labour’s conference ending today, the Conservative Party’s conference in Manchester seemed a pretty unsettled affair.
Factions took to the fringes to advance their respective credos — often overtly contradicting the substance of the speeches delivered from the main stage. Speculation over the future of HS2 dominated proceedings, prompting strained denials from Rishi Sunak that any decision had been over the Birmingham to Manchester leg until his final conference address. And party spokespeople conjured spectres of a “meat tax” and “sinister” 15-minute city schemes.
But, amid all the factional wrangling and media mismanagement, there was one consistent theme: the belief that voters are yet to be convinced by Sir Keir Starmer and that the Labour leader’s perceived shiftiness remains ripe for electoral exploitation.
Warming up the crowd ahead of the prime minister’s address, leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt exclaimed: “He doesn’t believe in anything. He doesn’t stand for anything”. Then Sunak castigated “Sir Keir” — an MP since 2015 — as “the walking definition of the 30-year political status quo I am here to end”.
A few days prior, Greg Hands, the Conservative Party chairman, had brandished flip-flops adorned with Keir Starmer’s face during his speech. “I always thought that the best leaders wake up each morning, and ask themselves ‘What am I going to do today?”, he explained.
“Sir Keir wakes up and asks ‘What am I going to believe today?’”, he added.
Such attacks, of course, are ostensibly justified by polling which suggests enthusiasm for Starmer lags some way behind voters’ desire for change. One recent poll, circulated among Labour strategists and readers of Robert Shrimsley’s FT column, showed that while 79 per cent of voters answered yes to the question “Does the country need a change from the Conservative party?”, the figure falls to 37 per cent when people were asked if the country needed a change to Labour.
Naturally, Keir Starmer is well aware of Conservative criticisms over his “flip-flopping”, “hindsight”-heavy politics — over the past three years, he has faced them most weeks at Prime Minister’s Questions. Nor is he much of a stranger to the polling data — not least of all because the BBC presented the Labour leader with a “word cloud” on Sunday which found the words voters most associated with him were “nothing”, “don’t know” and “not sure”.
In this way, redefining his appeal has been has been Starmer’s core objective this conference season. Indeed, speaking to Times Radio this morning, he described his conference speech as the “culmination” of a “three stage” strategy as Labour leader.
He explained: “We had to change the Labour Party at pace and ruthlessly, expose the Tories and the SNP as not fit to govern, but then this stage — which was always the third stage but very important — which is setting out the positive case.”
So, what did this “positive case” look like in Starmer’s conference address?
In Liverpool yesterday, the Labour leader’s central theme was explaining how he would “break the stranglehold of … decline” as prime minister. He pledged to bring Britain “towards a decade of national renewal” by facing down “the age of insecurity” as he portrayed Labour as “the builders”, “the healers” and the “modernisers”.
“A future must be built”, he declared, “that is the responsibility of serious government: “It’s time to build 1.5 million new homes across the country”.
He went on to repackage his “Five Missions” — which one assumes many within the conference hall might have struggled to recite — into neater, more easily repeatable soundbites. Labour will “get Britain building again”, “switch on Great British Energy”, “get the NHS back on its feet”, “take back our streets” and “break down barriers to opportunity”, he explained. On the surface, this was Starmer’s overtly answering that most difficult of questions: “Why Labour?”.
In speeches such as these, Starmer often talks about his toolmaker father and nurse mother — as well as his family home in a “pebble-dashed semi”. Yesterday, he even joked about the repeated references. But, in this address, the Labour leader explained, far better than before, how his background informs his political outlook as he told a compelling story about aspiration which will hit home for many wavering, erstwhile Conservative voters.
So Starmer rolled his tanks onto Tory lawns with passages on the family, the rule of law and the ability to “conserve”. In fact, viewed in full, Starmer’s speech was an audacious pitch to Conservative voters: to those Conservatives who “look in horror” as their party indulges in “populism and conspiracy”, who want a party that fights “for our union, our environment, the rule of law, family life, Starmer said, “Then let me tell you: Britain already has one. And you can join it. It’s this Labour Party”.
Thus Starmer framed his speech through the dual lenses of “challenge and “opportunity”, embracing his potential dire inheritance from the Conservatives and outlining his plan to literally “rebuild”. In one especially gripping section, he said: “If you think our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm. That in 1964 it was to modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology. In 1945 to build a new Britain out of the trauma of collective sacrifice. Then in 2024 it will have to be all three”.
Keir Starmer vs. “Sir Keir”
If, last week, the Conservative party spent its conference setting up wedge issues with the Labour leader, this was Starmer — firmly into “stage three” of his leadership — embracing them.
It begs the question: how do the Conservatives respond?
Well, yesterday, CCHQ had pre-prepared graphics blasting the “same old short-term politics”. It’s difficult to overlook the attack’s inherent incongruity, after Starmer spent his speech outlining his plan to lead Britain for a decade of “renewal”.
This probably highlights a broader flaw, and perhaps an element of underestimation, in the Conservatives’ long-term approach to Starmer. At Conservative Party conference, speakers, one by one, took to the stage to define the Labour leader on their desired terms — castigating “Sir Keir” as a perennial flip-flopper concerned merely with advancing his own career.
In this way, the Conservatives sense instinctively that Starmer has been outrageously lucky during his period as Labour leader, serving as a mere spectator to — rather than as an active actor in — their political tumult. They think, even three and a half years into his leadership, that Starmer is lightweight and exploitable: he is their “secret weapon”, and they intend to deploy him.
But, yesterday, the Labour leader responded to the challenge set by his opponents and undertook to define himself on his own terms: and, it turns out, the small-c conservative Starmer, who embraces family, the rule of law and aspiration, may just be Sunak’s worst electoral nightmare.
“Keir Starmer” according to Labour, and “Sir Keir” according to the Conservative caricature, are now two diametrically opposed politicians. The battle over what Starmer truly stands for, therefore, looks to be a key battleground as we enter a year of election preparation.
The Labour leader — who is more and more confident talking up his political vision — will gladly embrace, as he does so often now, this new dividing line.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.