Now colour it in!

Mike Phipps analyses Keir Starmer’s Conference speech

Keir Starmer’s speech to what should have been his first Party Conference as Labour leader was noteworthy more for what it left out than what it included. There was some trenchant criticism of the Tories’ handling of the COVID crisis and social care, but the speech was policy-light and left a lot of unanswered questions.

For me, the first big omission was the complete absence of any acknowledgment of the work of his predecessor. Is Jeremy Corbyn to be written entirely out of Labour’s history? Clearly, we went down to a heavy election defeat last December, and Corbyn’s detractors in the Party are happy blame him entirely for that. But it would not have hurt Starmer to note that Corbyn conducted the campaign with fervour and dignity throughout, in the face of the most savage media bombardment against any Labour leader since Michael Foot. Starmer should not fool himself that the Tory press will be any nicer to him, however likeable he tries to make the Party, “under new management”.

“When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to,” said Starmer. This implies that he feels our democracy is in a much healthier state than I do. Does he also believe Remain deserved to lose the EU referendum in 2016? If so, why push so strenuously for a second referendum?

Well, that’s all in the past. On Brexit, Starmer said, “The debate between Leave and Remain is over.  We are not a party that will bang on about Europe.” To Boris Johnson, he urged: “Go on and get a deal. If he fails to get one, he will have no one to blame but himself.” Reading between the lines, this seems to say: No Deal would be a very bad thing, but any deal would probably be OK. But, in reality, there are many possible deals that would be extremely bad for workers’ rights, the environment, food standards, migrants and UK citizens abroad.

Starmer was keen to emphasise that Labour is going to change. It will root out antisemitism. It is becoming a credible opposition. Again, this feels like accepting at face value many of the allegations of Labour’s enemies. Whatever faults there may have been in the last five years, many of Labour’s ideas in Opposition were agenda-setting. Instead of playing ‘catch-up’ with the Conservatives on austerity, Labour’s opposition to it ended the belief in either its necessity or desirability.

Starmer’s speech saw a lot of emphasis placed on the “national interest”. “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security,” he declared. NATO was cited, alongside the NHS, Open University, national minimum wage and Good Friday Agreement, as a great Labour achievement. Labour would stand up to breakaway nationalism and be the Party of the whole UK.

In response, Tribune writer Grace Blakeley tweeted: “It’s depressing that the opposition doesn’t realise that by repeating your opponent’s frame (nationalism, family values, etc.), you don’t steal their votes, you just strengthen their narrative.”

Patriotism featured large. To Labour’s lost voters, Starmer said, “We love this country as you do.”

But what does that mean in reality?” There is a lot of talk about patriotism again these days,” observed Shami Chakrabarti in her speech to the Socialist Campaign Group rally on Monday.  “I am happy to call myself a patriot, but not if that means using human rights as justification for wars over there, but never refugee protection over here.”

Starmer was silent on this, and much else, in a short speech that emphasised values over policies. But there were some concrete positives, which we should welcome.

Perhaps making up for his mis-speak over Black Lives Matter being a “moment”, he pledged that “the eradication of structural racism will be a defining cause of the next Labour government.”

He emphasised opportunity for young people and the need for a national strategy to close the education gap. He promised to guarantee all care workers a real living wage. He outlined a vision of “properly funded universal public services… world-class education… huge investment in skills… an economy that truly works for all regions… a country committed to a greener, cleaner and fairer society… and a country which would be an active force for good in the world… leading by example – in tackling the climate emergency.”

Andrew Fisher, Jeremy Corbyn’s senior policy advisor, said recently: “Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership in 2020 for three main reasons: he pledged to stick to the core policies of Corbynism; he promised competent leadership; and he prioritised party unity. There is nothing in this that the left should oppose or be in conflict with.”

It is true that Starmer’s speech implied a clear break with his predecessor, but he has not proposed an overturn of any of the central policy planks that the Party has democratically committed to.  No doubt some of his supporters on the Labour right are keen to change this.

Frontbencher Bridget Phillipson, for example, speaking to the right wing faction Labour to Win a few days ago, said, “When people told us they thought we were going to spend money on things our country didn’t need, we can’t just tell them that they were wrong…. we need to be disciplined about the spending promises we make now – both about the response to the pandemic and about the next Labour government…. We cannot be thought of as a party whose reaction to every problem is that the answer is more spending.”

This line has to be decisively rejected. Taking us back to the fiscal restraint of the New Labour years – particularly in the downturn caused by the coronavirus crisis – would be a disaster. The left needs to keep up the pressure for radical, popular policies.

Starmer’s speech was a vague outline which each wing of the Party will attempt to colour in with its own concrete policies. The left has to ensure its ideas, popular with both the membership and the majority of voters, prevail.

Image: Keir Starmer speaking at the 2020 Labour Party leadership election hustings in Bristol on the morning of Saturday 1 February 2020, in the Ashton Gate Stadium Lansdown Stand, Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.