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Artillery Row

Keir Starmer – a Serious Man

Starmer lays out a future – back to “the third way”

Sir Keir Starmer is a serious man. The stony expression on his face – conveying all the welcome of an Easter Island monolith – whenever Boris Johnson attempts to wise-crack at his expense at PMQs, says unmistakably that here is a Gladstone, not a Disraeli.

In his address yesterday to the Labour Party Conference – or, rather, a bank of television cameras in the absence of any conference delegates being permitted to attend in these socially distanced times – Starmer contrasted himself with the man he faces every Wednesday across the despatch boxes. “While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists. While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.” As for the government’s response to the Covid crisis, “I think we’ve learnt a lot about this Prime Minister. Tory backbenchers know it. His Cabinet knows it. We all know it. He’s just not serious. He’s just not up to the job.”

If Starmer is serious then he believes that makes him the man for this hour because – as he told the autocue – “it’s time to get serious about winning.” “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to. You don’t look at the electorate and ask them: ‘what were you thinking?’ You look at yourself and ask: ‘what were we doing?’” It’s a question the prime minister regularly tries to rag the Opposition leader about at PMQs regarding why he was content to sit on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench, but Starmer is all about the future now. And who could blame him? For as he reminded his supporters, “the Tories have had as many election winners in five years as we’ve had in seventy-five.”

That is quite a thought, not least because it is a statistic that cannot be entirely blamed on Corbyn – whose name mysteriously did not crop-up in Sir Keir’s speech, and who might as well now be in Siberia. Perhaps he is. By contrast, a passing reference was sneaked-in for Tony Blair, the premier non grata of the Labour movement.

a passing reference was sneaked-in for Tony Blair, the premier non grata of the Labour movement.

Then again, this was an address in which Labour’s new leader omitted to mention by name any of his current colleagues. That is unusual in a conference speech, where a bit of friendly name-checking about how well they are doing in their roles is the standard courtesy. At this stage, as Starmer makes himself better known to voters, the party profile perhaps necessarily has to be all about him. But if he’s going to traduce Johnson’s Cabinet as a bunch of third-raters, “chosen on loyalty alone”, there may come a time for him to allow a few shadow cabinet members their moment in the sun.

It is not the task of Opposition leaders to announce policy initiatives to party conferences – real or virtual – four years before the next election and in this Starmer honoured tradition. He recognises that he is still at the perception-forming stage and without changing what traditional-minded voters perceive as Labour’s cultural antipathy towards pride in Britishness, policy detail will not matter to them. That is why Starmer mentioned that it was one of the proudest moments of his parents’ lives “to be there, with me, at Buckingham Palace as I was awarded a knighthood for services to criminal justice.” “Family matters mean the world to me” Starmer assured us, another protestation we never heard from his predecessor.

It is one of his predecessor’s beefs that whilst it was Starmer who drove the second referendum pledge that proved so unpopular against Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done”, yet it is Corbyn who is getting all the blame for December’s electoral carnage. Yet, it has to be conceded that Starmer, at least, is a quick learner. “And on Brexit, let me be absolutely clear” he now reveals. “The debate between Leave and Remain is over. We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe. The prime minister has repeatedly promised that he will get a deal. So go on and get one.” Fine, but if he doesn’t get a deal, what then?

No matter, “my vision for Britain is simple: I want this to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in.” On that he may find cross-floor agreement. But how, Keir, how? “What we need is a national strategy with clear targets to close the education gap at every stage in a child’s development. A strategy enforced through an independent body, such as the Children’s Commissioner”. Targets – tick. A quango – tick. The Tories, meanwhile, had long promised to fix the “disgrace” of Britain’s social care system, but had done nothing. They needed to fix it, Starmer demanded, thereby neatly sidestepping how Labour would fix it.

This was in many ways a good speech, majoring on aspiration and generosity, and going easy on redistributive justice and how to pay for it. Tonight’s Labour party broadcast will give us more about that path of aspiration Sir Keir has tread in his own life. And yet, a nagging doubt remains that the passing reference to Tony Blair was the most significant sentence in his conference speech. For what Labour’s new leader offers in reality does rather resemble Blairism all over again.

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