Public Affairs & Government Relations

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – ‘Right Keir, Right Now’: Sir Keir Starmer’s first address to Labour conference

Nearly 18 months since he first became Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer was finally able to deliver his first conference speech to the party faithful. At times the reception was raucous, at times it was personal – and above all it was long. But the Labour leader and his allies will be pleased that the central tenet of his speech – a repudiation of the Corbyn era – will begin the process of repositioning the party back towards the centre ground of politics.

Two years on, and a devastating general election defeat later, the Labour Party finally reconvened in Brighton for its annual conference. Much has changed since the party last held its traditional annual gathering, not least the onset of a global pandemic, but with the election of a new Labour leader. Given COVID-19, Sir Keir Starmer has had scant opportunity to speak directly to both the party he now leads and – most importantly – directly to the nation itself.

The days leading up to his first conference address were pockmarked by traditional, but no less important, internal party wrangling. Rule changes have now made it harder for local activists to trigger deselection processes, whilst the threshold for nominating MPs for leadership bids has been raised to forty MPs. Both of which are designed to ensure that the era that ushered in Starmer’s predecessor, not that Jeremy Corbyn was ever named, is harder.

Starmer’s eve-of-speech missive that winning a general election is more important than party unity, and that the party must listen and learn from the electorate that handed its worse general election defeat since 1935, antagonised sections of the Labour Party. Starmer’s message to the public and those voters that stuck with it in 2019 was clear: “To our devoted activists, our devoted voters, you saved this party from obliteration and I thank you. But my job as leader is not just to say thank you, it is to understand and to learn”.

All of this is in the context of a government that is challenged domestically on multiple fronts: a fuel crisis, rising energy prices, a tax increase to pay for social care, inflation above four per cent, a shortage of HGV drivers to deliver many of the essential services and materials the country needs to keep moving and the cutting of Universal Credit.

The new Labour leader came to the platform to the ringing of Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now. It was no doubt a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that his first speech to conference – and, indeed, to the nation – had been rightly and heavily delayed by the COVD-19 pandemic. He also entered the conference hall to a chorus of booing and chants by dissatisfied sections of the party determined to defend the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In neat, pre-prepared lines, the Labour leader stood up to the wave of heckling by stating: “Normally, at this time on a Wednesday afternoon, it is the Tories heckling me. It doesn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now”.

The heckling, whilst nasty and inappropriate in places, particularly during a passage when the Labour leader was talking movingly about his late mother, the left’s discontent has been briefed by Labour sources as crystallising the fight the Labour leader has: to stand down to the party’s hard left.

Overcoming the heckling contingent, the Labour leader levelled his attacks on the Prime Minister, labelling Boris Johnson a “trivial man”. Going on, Starmer said of Johnson: “He’s a showman with nothing left to show. He’s a trickster who has performed his one trick. Once he said the words ‘get Brexit done’ his plan ran out. He has no plan.”

Starmer also attempted to close the door on the Corbyn era by promising never to go into another election “with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government”. In a later passage, the well-known slogan from the early Tony Blair years – of education, education, education – was strongly hinted at and the Labour leader echoed Gordon Brown’s speech to Labour conference in 2009 when he listed, in detail, the policies of the last Labour government. It was a clear dividing line that the era of not defending the record of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments was over.

In a long and detailed section, Starmer also began to detail emerging policies. A new target for treatment for mental health patients to be seen within a month, removing the charitable status of private schools, ensuring every child could go to a “great state school”, a Green New Deal, a Clean Air Act, tougher and fast-tracked sentences for rapists, stalkers and domestic abusers, a pledge to spend 3% of GDP on science and research, and committing the Labour Party to the NATO alliance.

He promised the NHS “more money” but insisted that it had to focus on prevention in the first place. “The future of the NHS can’t just be about chasing extra demand with more money.” He also began to link the pressures on the NHS seen during the pandemic on the government’s record in power: “This wasn’t just a government failure over 18 months. It was a failure of the government’s duty of care over 11 years,” he said. “There are cracks in British society and COVID seeped into them.”

Following the speech, Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, announced that she was “inspired” by the speech, addressing the concerns that she declared post the May local elections that the leader had failed as “voters didn’t know what Keir Starmer stood for.”

The Deputy Leader also had to defend, and apologised for, her controversial comments on Sunday evening when she labelled the Conservatives “scum”. Rayner noted that had been speaking at a “post watershed event” but accepted that her language was “bombastic”. The Deputy Leader also defended Starmer seemingly dropping elements of his ten pledges upon which he was elected last March as it is “not about pledge cards or bumper stickers” but speaking directly to the British public.

Labour sources have labelled the 90-minute speech with two pithy words: ‘Britain Remade’. Starmer concluded his first ever speech to Labour conference by stating that, after Brexit, the global pandemic and climate debate, “now was a big moment in history”. He has set his stall as a serious leader for serious times in a long, detailed, at times virulent speech that the Labour Party will hope will set its leader on the path to Number 10.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2021 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.


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