Being leader of the opposition can be an unenviable job. There is always someone looking to make your day more difficult.
Yet, as Keir Starmer’s hair and shoulders glimmered with glitter, pushing on with his conference speech (and literally rolling up his sleeves), after a protester made the start much more difficult, showed an admirable poise – and generated much support amongst those watching.
The speech itself was, at times, a bit of a smorgasbord of pre-existing Labour messaging, with rhetoric that has featured in previous Starmer speeches connected together with some policy reminders, and anecdotes.
That isn’t necessarily bad for a big political speech – it shows consistency, and that Starmer has arrived at some political rhetoric and positioning he feels comfortable with.
After all, as the political communications wisdom would say, while it may be repetitive to those who have listened to previous Labour speeches, or read Labour documents, most people are not avid Labour Party observers.
The core of the speech undoubtedly demonstrated a settled element of Labour’s political economy – what shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves has called ‘securonomics’ and other economists have called ‘productivism’.
Starmer stood by Labour’s green investment ideas, and – with some conditionality – the overarching priority of investment. He stood by Labour’s improved rights at work. Housing and planning reform was given a new, clearer theme through the language of new towns, and the connection to Labour’s retelling of its past: the builders.
It was a positive, optimistic speech in some moments, albeit within a fiscally cautious frame, and a strategy not likely to surprise with too many announcements. When I was asked recently about how I thought this conference would go, I suggested the big question was how cautious Starmer and Labour would be, and guessed the strategy would broadly remain safety first.
I think, overall, that is broadly what has happened at Labour’s 2023 conference. Yet, there was a little less Conservative attack, and a little more Labour optimism. Starmer’s speech was less reactive to the Conservative prime minister’s agenda than in the past, and it included a kind of political warning, at the end, about how Starmer perceives the forthcoming election campaign: a difficult one, and – he inferred – one that will have to contend with Conservative populism.
It could be said that Labour needs to be optimistic. The party’s motivations – and, I believe, its governing aspirations – will likely require more money than the frontbench has committed to making available, and Starmer’s current response (aside from some specific revenue-raising measures) is optimistic: ‘growth’.
But that aside, a more optimistic Starmer, confident in the party’s political economy versus the Conservatives, could lead to a more social democratic future Labour government. As such, a bit of optimism is important for Labour’s politics.
This was, then, a speech of political consistency – one that reiterated who Starmer is, how Labour’s political economy has changed, and hit upon key themes from the last year or so.
Karl Pike is a co-editor of Renewal, and a lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary University of London, where he is also a deputy director of the Mile End Institute. His book, Getting Over New Labour, is released in April 2024.