In the age of Twitter a leader’s party conference speech can seem like a throwback to times long gone. For some, the only reason the thing still exists is so it can be chopped into sound-bites and sent out on social media. Munchies for the masses.
Yet despite the cursory nature of so much in politics today, or perhaps because of it, the leader’s speech matters more than ever. There are so few occasions left where a politician stands alone before voters, his or her qualities, or lack of them, plain to see. The leader’s speech is one such moment. It is a brutal test but an effective one.
After 90 minutes on his feet, did Keir Starmer pass the test? What did we learn of the man who would be Prime Minister?
On the downside, his delivery was stilted, the speech too long and meandering. Anyone still hoping there was a natural orator in Sir Keir just waiting to break free had their answer yesterday. He did manage to mention the queues at the fuel pumps, thus lessening the general impression that the party has spent this week gazing at its navel.
There was much mention of tool-making, his father’s profession, as a metaphor for the decency and application of the working class. He spoke movingly of his disabled mother and how well she was treated by the NHS. There was a long section on his former life as a lawyer and how he had fought to secure justice for victims of crime and their families.
On he went, ticking all the boxes deemed necessary, from education and employment to climate change. Finally he got to Scotland, declaring Labour to be the party of the Union, and leading a stonker of a round of applause for Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar. He also said voters here were ill-served by not one bad government but two in the shape of the SNP and the Conservatives. Anything else? He cannot tell a joke but he can cope with hecklers.
Of Boris Johnson he said: “I don’t think he is a bad man. He’s a trivial man. He is a showman with nothing left to show.” After listening to Sir Keir one might equally say that he is not a bad man, he is a decent if dull man, definitely not a showman in an age when politics is dominated by show.
Decent if dull. There are worse things a politician can be. In the interesting times we have been living though, many would take bland but competent over fascinating but woefully inept any day.
Is it enough, though, to take him to Number 10? Certainly, he is not Jeremy “Magic Grandpa” Corbyn, with his vote-killing policies and toxic band of followers.
Nor is he Tony, the one who seemed such a lovely young man when he came round to sell you a new political party. Look how he turned out.
Blair and Corbyn were not mentioned by name in Sir Keir’s speech but they were unmistakably present. There was almost a reference to Blair’s education, education, education mantra, but the party is not yet ready to hear that name spoken aloud.
Given this was something of a debut for Sir Keir, the closest comparison to Starmer in Brighton 2021 might be Blair in Blackpool 1994. Both relatively new faces, both subject to attacks from the left, both believers that elections are won from the centre. Yet while the two men have much in common, the differences between them are fundamental and telling.
First, when Blair appeared in Blackpool it was off the back of electoral success in the local and European elections.
Labour arrived in Brighton this week having suffered, under Jeremy Corbyn, its worst defeat at a General Election since 1935.
The Conservative Government that Blair faced was incompetent in the extreme and tried to make a virtue out of being tough on the poor and disadvantaged.
Today’s Conservatives can match the old brigade for ineptitude, but while they are still fond of swiping the poor when they can (see the cut to Universal Credit), Covid has meant they have also presided over the biggest bail out of individuals, families, and businesses in living memory. The party that once destroyed jobs as a matter of policy has kept people in work.
When Blair spoke of Scotland it was still solid Labour territory. Devolution and independence were ideas that existed mainly on the fringes, to be dealt with one distant day.
When Sir Keir looks north he sees the entrenched reality of a wash of SNP yellow. The red wall in Scotland was long ago reduced to a pile of rubble. The question of independence hangs over everything, but who is listening to Labour’s answer?
There is another crucial difference between the two leaders. Blair, the modernisation of his party begun, its policies overhauled, could realistically claim that Labour was “the mainstream voice in politics today, back on the side of the vast majority … Your ambitions are our ambitions, your concerns are our concerns”.
And the Labour party of today, thrashing around in the culture wars, one of its own woman MPs too afraid to attend the party conference because she dared to say that only a woman has a cervix? Are the concerns of Labour today in any way the concerns of the “vast majority”?
For me there were two crucial moments in the Starmer speech. The first was when he began listing some of Labour’s achievements in government, from introducing the minimum wage to cutting child and pensioner poverty. The audience came alive. Did we really do all that, you could almost hear them thinking. That’s not too shabby. Viewers at home probably perked up too. So that’s what Labour was about before the ruinous war and the constant in-fighting.
The second moment came near the end when Sir Keir approached an uncomfortable truth. If the Tories are so bad, he asked, what did it say about Labour that voters could turn against the party so comprehensively at the last General Election?
Regardless of Sir Keir’s performance , only when the party is able to answer that question fully and honestly can it even begin to find its way back into power.
In short, Sir Keir needs a better speechwriter and Labour needs a new script. Whether time and voter patience allow is another matter.