Comment: Starmer has all the component parts to be a good leader, yet somehow something is missing
After a mammoth five-day party conference, setting out for the first time to delegates in real-life as party leader who he is and why the British public should back him, Sir Keir Starmer will be remembered as much for the length of his speech – about 90 minutes – as he will for the way his party managed to tie itself in knots in Brighton over the question of what maketh a woman.
And while Starmer’s conference speech positioned him as a serious man; a man of intellect; of integrity; a trustworthy man – he was a former director of public prosecutions, after all – despite all the words, the question of whether he is the man who will lead the Labour Party into the next election, never mind into No 10, still hangs heavy in the air like a bad smell.
The problem with Starmer is that he has all the right component parts to make him a credible leader of government: he looks good, speaks well, appeals to the moderates, has a great back story, and appears committed to the cause. But somehow, he remains incomplete – stuck at managerial level and not quite making it into the executive suite.
There’s something emotionally detached about him, a lack of sincerity, no matter how sincere he tries to be. Just not quite delivering the full political package. As if he was created in the Blair-school of central casting but they then forgot to fit the final part. He seems permanently stuck in too low a gear.
And if in the final analysis of what his speech was really about, the answer is ‘about an hour and a half’, then, categorically, he failed to deliver on that seminal question of ‘why vote Labour?’
Yes, we understand that the clue is in the name, that ‘Labour’ does, literally, stand for working people but translated into real-life, Starmer didn’t lay out his plans for transformational change.
And if his answer to securing more than the one Westminster Scottish seat the party currently holds is to drag Gordon Brown back, once again, out of the constitutional cul-de-sac to revitalise the arguments for the Union, then Starmer is more out of touch with Scotland than even his odd reference to blood donations begins to suggest.
How would he level up, never mind fill up – which is the more immediate issue facing working people. We got the usual rhetoric about social and economic justice, and his views on climate change, but less of what he would actually do about any of it. It was a speech that was policy light, preferring instead to list the achievements of the Blair era which, while a reminder of what Labour can do in power, was also a reference that is now outdated and, for some, provokes disquiet.
He talked about how poor things are under the Tories, which was good – have we ever lived in such a moment of dire emergency? – but then, bizarrely, asked conference to consider this: that if they thought the Tories were bad, then how much worse are they if, even against that derisory competition, they can’t get into power? That point might have been worth pondering in private, if a self-flagellating journey to self-improvement was his core rationale, but was hardly the greatest incentive for a group hug and a rally call, let alone encouraging the country to get behind him.
But still, he got the applause.
He also failed to address the Scottish question, mentioning Scotland – the country he needs to win over to get into No 10 – just twice. And if his answer to securing more than the one Westminster Scottish seat the party currently holds is to drag Gordon Brown back, once again, out of the constitutional cul-de-sac to revitalise the arguments for the Union, then Starmer is more out of touch with Scotland than even his odd reference to blood donations begins to suggest.
And talking of dinosaurs, his party conference will also be remembered for the row over trans rights. The pinnacle, if you can have a high point in a low debate, was David Lammy accusing feminists of being dinosaurs and hoarding their rights while also musing on the idea that trans women can grow bodily parts.
Back in the conference hall, and counterintuitively for a leader who wants to win over the wider electorate, Starmer was speaking solely to the room. And in reiterating his own stamp of managerial politics, relegating the hard left to shouting like loons from the conference floor, he only succeeded in reinforcing the idea that this was a party still divided.
It’s true that over the course of conference he has won over the moderates [reader, whisper it, but they were already there], changed the rules so that MPs are no longer held hostage to the hard-left fringes and constantly in fear of deselection. He has also, effectively, barred another Jeremy Corbyn from becoming leader by leaving that ‘democratic’ decision to an inner circle rather than the membership. And he has, thankfully, he claims, closed the door on the issue of antisemitism that has so damaged the party’s standing in the last few years. Symbolically, he welcomed the Jewish ex-MP Dame Louise Ellman back into the party.
All of that is vitally important to the internal party machinations but party conference is as much about speaking to the public outwith the hall as it is to the members within it.
And with a nation struggling with three-hour tailbacks at petrol stations, with the army on standby to drive fuel tankers, with an energy crisis looming, furlough ending, universal credit being cut, plunging six million people into further poverty, taxes rising, with the NHS at breaking point, the economy in meltdown and the entrenched inequities exposed and deepened by Covid, and a proven liar as prime minister, a Labour Party arguing about whether it is appropriate to call the Tories ‘scum’, unable to agree on whether only women have a cervix, and a shadow minister resigning over how low is too low for a minimum wage, this is not where Starmer surely wishes the Labour Party to be.
And regardless of whether Starmer is seen as having had a relatively successful party conference – he’s still leader – it ended how it began, with speculation as to who comes next. And with Angela Rayner still topping that list, Starmer may wish, with an election now potentially just eight months away, that the one Corbyn legacy he had retained was the abolition of the post of deputy.