The man who would be prime minister

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer made a big impact with his speech at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, but can he go the distance and emerge victorious at the next general election?

The signs were there that this year’s Labour Conference would be different from those in recent years: the Momentum splinter conference and The World Transformed festival banished; corporate sponsors and exhibitors back in force; the traditional pre-conference gaffs and infighting (largely) absent.

Gone was the oppressive feeling of perpetual defeat, replaced with an optimism, discipline and (whisper it) unity, that Labour may have a real chance of victory at the next general election. Shadow ministers speaking at fringes and events in the run-up to the leader’s speech received warmer responses than in previous years. We observed no heckling from the audience at a fringe when one shadow minister praised some of what Blair had achieved, unthinkable under Corbyn.

Keir Starmer’s keynote conference speech needed to embody and focus that renewed optimism, respond to his critics that Labour’s polling lead owes more to Government missteps than his own leadership, and to begin carving out Labour’s offer to the electorate. In contrast with his more stilted and impersonal address last year, Starmer appeared confident and passionate, delivering a speech he’d largely written himself.

The central linking theme of contrasting Labour competence and decency under his leadership with a Government facing perpetual crises and at risk of being perceived as out of touch with the needs and priorities of ordinary working people landed well in the conference hall.

Unleashing the green heat of technology (to paraphrase Wilson) through Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan feels like a compelling and hopeful response to the UK’s energy and cost-of-living challenges, though the details of the proposed UK sovereign wealth fund and Great British Energy company remain a little fuzzy. The Great British Energy company has, not surprisingly, been met with enthusiasm from members.

Once again family was central to him, and the speech referenced his family history – in particular, the strong link to working in the NHS. Fairness came across loud and clear. Starmer took the opportunity to pre-empt Conservative attack lines before the next election, reinforcing his brand of patriotic socialism with respectful references to the Queen and challenging Labour members to prioritise “Country first, Party second.”

Demonstrating a political maturity and ability to anticipate future threats, the Labour leader also dedicated a whole passage to attacking the SNP, explicitly ruling out any future pact with the nationalist party, while noticeably staying silent on co-operation with the Lib Dems. Starmer has clearly learned from the experience of his friend and shadow cabinet colleague Ed Miliband, already seeking to inoculate Labour from accusations that a vote for Starmer is a vote for Sturgeon.

Speaking with activists in the wake of Starmer’s conference keynote, they feel buoyed, excited and optimistic for the Party’s future election chances and hopeful for job creation as part of the ‘greening’ of the country to deliver net zero. His challenge will be to harness, guide and translate that enthusiasm over the coming months.

Starmer, like many of his shadow ministers, pitched the party as being a government-in-waiting. Activists and members are positive but not certain of this outcome. Labour still faces a massive uphill battle to overturn the Government’s 71-seat majority, and complacency driven by positive polling leads for Labour remains a risk. Prime Minister Liz Truss continues to show agility, ruthlessness and a willingness to make bold policy choices, but Starmer’s renewed confidence may be the deciding factor on whether the next general election is a rerun of 1992 or 1997.

Moray Macdonald is group head of public policy at Instinctif.

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