Keir Starmer’s Secret Weapon in His Battle to Regain Power
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Keir Starmer’s first in-person conference speech as Labour Party leader wasn’t devoid of policy direction, laugh lines or moments of poignance. Nor was it impersonal: After 18 months of leadership that has often been criticized as too distant, Starmer reintroduced himself and spoke about his upbringing as the son of a toolmaker and a nurse. And at 88 minutes long, it was an endurance event.
But Starmer’s biggest coup was bringing back a Labour politician who wasn’t in the room and wasn’t actually name-checked: Tony Blair.
Blair is regarded more fondly outside the country than within Britain. The 2003 Iraq invasion, in which he was accused of lying to the public, made him persona non grata even in his own party. But he also modernized Labour and was the last leader of the party to have actually displayed a knack for winning elections.
Starmer had won the drawn-out election to be Labour leader in part by pledging continuity with his socialist predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, something Blair warned would be deadly for Labour’s election chances. That expedient has now been dropped and Starmer has taken a couple of important lessons from the Blair playbook.
First, he has been ruthless in dealing with an old guard that made the party not just unelectable but irrelevant. Nearly a year ago, Starmer suspended Corbyn from the party over comments undermining Starmer’s attempts to purge the party of anti-Semitism. He has pushed through changes in the party’s ruling committee and, during this week’s conference, rule changes that make it harder for a hard-left figure to be elected leader in the future and which give Labour MPs more protection against being ousted.
Most telling, perhaps, was Starmer’s statement that he cares more about winning than uniting his party. That is the biggest departure from Corbyn, who always acted as if getting elected was a “nice to have” so long as he didn’t have to dilute his socialist purism.
Second, and just as importantly, Starmer seems to have learned that successful leaders often steal their opponent’s good ideas. In 2019, Johnson firmly parked his tanks on Labour’s lawn, promising to beef up the National Health Service and spend more on public services generally. On Wednesday, Starmer leveraged his background as Britain’s chief public prosecutor to attack the Tory record on crime-fighting and pledge a tougher regime under a Labour government. He all but referenced Blair’s famous “tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime” slogan in his speech.
He also claimed Johnson’s big “levelling up” agenda was invented by Labour. “If they want to know how to do it, I suggest they take a look at our record the last time we were in government,” Starmer said to applause. Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves outlined a set of fiscal rules that looks a lot like the ones Rishi Sunak is expected to adopt — though, this being Labour, there are also tax hikes for the wealthy in store.
So should Boris Johnson brace for some competition on the political pitch? It will take more than a speech and some rules changes to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent. Johnson’s uncanny political nous and ability to speak to voters of all stripes makes him a formidable electoral opponent. Voters looking for some star dust won’t find it in the opposition leader. But rather than trying to match Johnson, Starmer used his speech to paint his opponent as “trivial.”
Losing can also be as habit-forming as winning. Starmer’s party has lost the last four national elections — the last with its worst performance since 1935. In fact, Labour has only been in power for 30 of the past 120 years. Its longest stint was under Blair.
It will take not just a strong leader but a strong team to turn things around. Even after cleaning up his bench, Starmer’s crew doesn’t always playing together. He spent time this week half-apologizing after his deputy leader and former Corbynite Angela Rayner, a potential rival for the leadership, described the Tory leadership as “scum.” He’s had to walk back statements on nationalizations from former Labour leader Ed Miliband. While hecklers in the hall Wednesday helped to underscore the changes under Starmer, they also put on display the party’s deep divisions.
And, as the 12,000-word essay he released before his overlong conference speech shows, Starmer tends to over-pack his set-pieces. He runs the risk of losing, or confusing, his audience with so much content. It will be a difficult task to pick out a clip or two for the evening news. Arguably he missed a chance this week to attack the government for failing to anticipate or respond adequately to the problems that have led to a run on gas.
While Starmer’s speech didn’t strike me as a pivotal comeback moment, neither was it insignificant. Democracies become sclerotic if there are no competing ideas and no viable alternatives to the government of the day. Starmer has at least begun to position his party so it can go on offense occasionally. He’s done this not through great flights of rhetoric or a single captivating slogan, but by removing the players, and the plays, that weren’t working. Picking up a few tactics from the Blair era isn’t just smart, it’s essential.
As a keen soccer player, Starmer knows that his side — like Arsenal, the London football club he supports — has fallen far but with some changes is capable of stringing together some wins. Still, it’s a long way to top of the league.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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