Brighton, UK – Keir Starmer, the British Labour leader has on Wednesday vowed to ‘clear up this mess’ of Conservative government in his first in-person conference speech, ridiculing both his own party’s left-wing and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In the highly personalised address to Labour’s rank-and-file, the former prosecutor sought to shed his reputation for lawyerly caution and build a case for Britain to take his party seriously again after its worst election loss since 1935.
In one impromptu moment as left-wing supporters of former leader Jeremy Corbyn tried to drown him out, Starmer demanded to know if they were more interested in “shouting slogans, or changing lives?”
The riposte drew one of the many standing ovations that punctuated the 90-minute speech from the vast majority of Labour members gathered in a cavernous hall on the English south coast.
The coronavirus pandemic forced both Labour and Johnson’s Conservatives to hold their conferences in virtual format last year, but it has hurt Starmer the most politically, depriving him of a public platform at a time of national crisis.
But rather than attacking the government’s handling of a fuel supply crisis paralysing large parts of the UK economy, Labour has spent much of its five-day conference mired in internal battles.
Starmer bid to rectify that, mocking Johnson’s signature post-Brexit policy of “levelling up” unequal growth across Britain.
“Level up? You can’t even fill up,” the Labour leader said.
“We have a fuel crisis, a pay crisis, a goods crisis, and a cost of living crisis, all at the same time.
“Either get a grip, or get out of the way, let us step up and clear up this mess,” he said, outlining new pledges on climate change, mental health, education, health, and taxation.
PM is ‘trivial’
Starmer said Britain had been left “isolated and irrelevant” on the world stage under Johnson, who trounced Labour under Corbyn in 2019 with a vow to “get Brexit done”.
w to “get Brexit done”.
“It’s easy to comfort yourself that your opponents are bad people,” said Starmer, who replaced Corbyn in April 2020 – a fortnight into Britain’s first pandemic lockdown.
“But I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show. I think he’s a trickster who has performed his one trick.
“Once he had said the words ‘get Brexit done’, his plan ran out. There is no plan.”
Starmer served up a highly personalised account of his journey into politics, talking about his upbringing by his tool-maker father and nurse mother who suffered a debilitating illness later in life.
He noted he was the first of his family to go to university, at Leeds in northern England, but one current student there found nothing to admire in Starmer’s address.
“One speech won’t change anything. We need unity. We need to consistently hammer the Tories,” George Aylett, a 25-year-old doctorate student in politics at Leeds, told AFP at the conference.
Demanding the suspended Corbyn’s restoration to Labour’s ranks of MPs, Aylett said Starmer had “broken all his promises to unify the party.
“We need a fresh leadership election.”
But Julie Cattell, 65, a town planner from Brighton and Labour member since 1987, called the speech “electrifying” after the “horrible” Corbyn era.
“He spoke from the heart, from his own life experience, from his family roots,” she said.
“I think this whole conference was a turning point. It’s lovely to be standing proud as a Labour member again.”
Even if the fuel crisis has damaged Johnson in the polls, surveys also show that Britons remained ambivalent about Labour under Starmer, and it remains to be seen if the speech alters that.
Johnson hosts his own party conference in the northern city of Manchester in early October, bidding to build on historic Conservative advances deep into Labour “Red Wall” territory.
Starmer’s team has taken heart from the weekend election win of Labour’s SPD sister party in Germany, but a high-profile resignation from his frontbench team upset the show of unity in Brighton.
Nevertheless, Starmer has strived to bury the recent Corbyn past, ramming through rule changes that will make it harder for Labour to elect such a radical leader again.
He vowed: “The voters that thought we were unpatriotic or irresponsible, or that we looked down on them, I say these simple but powerful words: we will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government.”