Sir Keir Starmer has decisively moved Labour back to the political centre once occupied by Tony Blair, challenging left-wing hecklers at his party’s conference to choose between “shouting slogans or changing lives”.
Starmer took on his critics during a 90-minute speech in which he trashed the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn, his predecessor, and adopted many of the themes that took Blair’s New Labour to power.
In a speech repeatedly interrupted by shouting and placard-waving, Starmer said: “We will never, under my leadership, go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government.”
Delivering his first “in-person” address to a Labour conference since becoming leader in 2020, Starmer said only the hard work of party activists in the 2019 election had saved Labour from “obliteration”.
Starmer appeared to relish taking on his critics, in a performance with echoes of Neil Kinnock’s conference confrontation with Militant hardliners in 1985. Delegates drowned out the hecklers with standing ovations.
John McDonnell, former shadow chancellor, has urged Starmer not to run “a Blairite tribute band” and at one point one activist, referring to Blair’s former New Labour adviser, shouted: “Where’s Peter Mandelson?”
Mandelson told the Financial Times that Starmer had “literally changed in front of people’s eyes” on the stage. “His authority will jump – making it easier for him to do everything else he needs to do, while the far left are busy ushering themselves out of the door.”
Starmer’s speech contained some new policies, including a promise to invest more in mental health, education and to spend £6bn a year on upgrading insulation in 19m homes to tackle climate change.
But the main purpose was to convey to voters – who have become disillusioned with Starmer – that the party had changed and was serious about winning power from the centre.
Successive Labour leaders – Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Corbyn – have distanced themselves from Blair, the party’s most electorally successful leader. Starmer did not mention Blair by name, but his legacy was a theme that ran through the speech.
Starmer, stressing his background as a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, promised Labour would always be tough on crime – a theme of the Blair era.
He said that education was “so important that I am tempted to say it three times” – a reference to Blair’s famous “education, education, education” slogan. He promised to “win trust that we will create a strong economy”.
Delegates, some of whom have booed Blair’s name in the past, rose to their feet and cheered as Starmer listed the achievements of the Blair/Brown governments of 1997-2010.
Blair has advised Starmer that Labour will not reconnect with former voters in “red wall” seats unless it is seen to be patriotic and supportive of the military – a position that he believes Corbyn undermined.
“Here in this hall we are patriots,” Starmer said, praising the armed forces to prolonged applause. “People were cheering rightwing stuff,” said one person involved in drafting the speech, with evident relief.
Starmer’s address, which included a lengthy personal section about his upbringing as the son of a toolmaker and a nurse, was intended to reintroduce him to a country with which he has failed to connect.
A YouGov poll found that his reputation among Britons had fallen sharply this year. His reputation for being “strong” has fallen from 4 in January to minus 31 now. His competence ratings have also collapsed from 21 to minus 6.
Starmer, nevertheless, believes that he can win the election by appearing to be more competent than Boris Johnson, claiming that the prime minister’s handling of the fuel crisis had exposed his shortcomings.
“It’s easy to comfort yourself that your opponents are bad people,” he said, in a rebuke to his deputy Angela Rayner, who this week labelled the Conservatives “scum”.
But he added: “I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show. I think he’s a trickster who has performed his one trick.”
The lengthy speech, which sagged in the middle, included Starmer committing to make every home in the country cheaper to heat within a decade. The upgrades would save families more than £400 a year on energy bills, he said, and help the country meet its 2050 net-zero carbon target.
Starmer said a Labour government would inherit damaged public finances and that he took “very seriously” his responsibility for spending taxpayers’ money.
As prime minister he would bring in tougher sentences for serious sexual assault cases, spend £28bn a year on a Green New Deal, hire more than 8,500 mental health professionals and launch “the most ambitious school programme in a generation”.
Labour would also change the priority duty of directors to “make the long-term success of the company the main priority”, he said.
Starmer’s team was pleased to have emerged from a crucial week by the seaside with the leader’s authority enhanced and with internal party rule changes in place to curb the influence of the Corbynite left.
Corbyn himself was confined to the fringe, including addressing supporters in a nightclub bar. Starmer’s supporters believed that the sight of Labour delegates drowning out the hecklers was a defining moment.
“For two years we sat in this hall obsessed with ourselves and thinking protest was a substitute for power,” said Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, after the speech. “This is a party which is serious about winning.”