It is the perceived wisdom that one of the reasons Tony Blair was so electorally successful was that he ‘took on’ the left of his party. The truth is somewhat nuanced. In 1995 when the party conference voted to drop Clause 4 of its constitution, which committed Labour to nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, Blair was already 17 points ahead in the polls and the Bennite left were a shadow of their former selves. The move was largely symbolic. In reality, the heavy lifting had already been done by Neil Kinnock and his Chief of Staff, Charles Clark in the 1980s and early 90s when Militant were expelled.
So, Keir Starmer took to the stage yesterday with a speech that had to do the job of both a Kinnock and a Blair. Firstly, following the rule changes at the start of the conference, which returned powers from members to the PLP and unions, Starmer gave notice that anything that did not make a direct contribution to getting into Government was to be jettisoned. Secondly, unwieldy manifesto commitments driven by issue and identity politics would be replaced with a “serious plan for government” set against core policies focused on the economy, health, education, crime and equality, tied together with a common theme that looks to the future and rebuilding post-pandemic Britain.
Billed as the speech of his life, it was. While not a naturally charismatic speaker, he was polished and compassionate dealing with serial heckling in a calm and measured way – “shouting slogans or changing lives, conference?” he asked, bringing the faithful to their feet.
I said in my blog on the eve of the conference that we could expect Labour’s record in Government to be resuscitated and listing the achievements of the Blair/Brown years got one of the biggest ovations of the speech with Starmer telling the conference that “that’s levelling up”
The key takeaway now for both voters and Boris Johnson is that Labour is changing and that they can expect a more professional and focussed opposition as the crises continue to mount for the Prime Minister. A lot of this is based on what Labour has heard when talking to former supporters in the Red Wall. While voters haven’t quite taken against Boris Johnson the focus groups are telling Labour that they are worried about his competence. Starmer’s framing of Johnson as “not being a bad man” but rather as a “trivial man” is intended to punch that bruise.
Overall, Starmer’s team will be delighted with the speech and the response to it. They will also be pleased with the trajectory that the conference took following the initial argy-bargy about rules. With many advising Starmer against taking on the left or at least watering down the proposals at the start of the conference he has emerged from the week looking stronger and in firm control of his party. He’s dealt with the tricky internal issues years out from the next general election and shifted the party bang in the centre. Despite being in post for 17 months this is the first time the public will have had the chance to take a proper look at him and draw their own conclusions based on Johnson’s response in Manchester next week.
The H+K team will be there checking out the latest on the fringe and on the conference floor. Look out for our regular reports and insights from our very own James Drewer who has worked with Boris Johnson, David Cameron and William Hague.