This year’s event, the first in-person opportunity for Keir Starmer to meet the party faithful (and not-so-faithful), was always going to be a tumultuous affair, with the inclement weather merely providing an appropriate backdrop to the internal fights happening within the Brighton Centre.
As it happened, the storm quickly passed – and Keir Starmer and the ‘mainstream’ of the Labour Party came out on top.
The main takeaway for many from #Lab21 is that Corbynism has been excised from the party, with Starmer now entering a new phase of his leadership where he can turn his attention squarely towards the country.
The big question facing Labour is, is the country willing to listen?
A popular story doing the rounds in Brighton was that during his days as a lawyer, Starmer was “always better at convincing the judge than the jury”. In other words, his well-received performances at the Despatch Box are commendable, but can he pivot his intellect and grasp of detail into a connection with the electorate at large?
We saw how this may play out in practice today with his long-awaited speech to party conference. Billed as Sir Keir’s first opportunity to speak in-person to a conference hall since winning the leadership, there was a risk that anything he said would suffer from the level of hype and expectation that had come to surround it.
In reality, his team will be thrilled with today’s performance, and Starmer himself will feel far more secure in his leadership of the party than he has at any point even over the last week.
Delivered with confidence and a more optimistic tone than we’ve come to expect from Labour Leaders in recent years, Starmer made abundantly clear that Labour is under new management: a point that was only reinforced by audience heckles from the left, the theatre of which was more than helpful in underscoring his narrative that Labour is now once again focused on power over protest.
There was plenty of substance too, with key policy announcements packaged into an overarching message of a fairer and greener Britain, run by a Labour Party that would never again go into an election with a “manifesto that is not a serious plan for government”.
Directly addressing the fuel crisis, he lambasted Boris Johnson with a line that well resonate. “Level up? You can’t even fill up”. Emphasising his record in the Crown Prosecution Service, Starmer drove home the message that he locked up dangerous criminals and terrorists – drawing a stark contrast to his predecessor. And riffing on Tony Blair’s “education, education, education”, he announced new policies to tackle inequality across sectors and the country.
If there is a criticism of the speech, it’s that it was far too long. At points, some may have been wondering if he was simply reading out his recent 14,000-word tome. In a world in which first impressions count, as per our New Rules of Influence research, this may indicate there is more work to do on the politics of presentation.
Today’s coverage, however, will be a win for his team. Expect a focus on the break with Corbynism, the adoption of new policies that will resonate with many voters, and the new Leader finally having a chance to present himself to the public. This will worry CCHQ who, one has to imagine, for the first time in recent memory will have paid particular attention to this speech.
Earlier in the week, there was plenty of criticism of Labour from the commentariat, accusing the party of internal naval gazing at a time when the country is facing an acute crisis. However, the gamble of initiating sweeping rule changes to symbolise Labour’s break with the past paid off and, indeed, is the necessary first step of detoxifying the party for many voters.
As the public’s attention moves away from the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite, we can expect politics to return to a relative semblance of normality. Within this, we should expect an Opposition Leader – and a new Opposition Leader at that – to get a fair hearing from the public. Based on today’s speech, the Conservatives would be advised to take Labour seriously again for the first time in a very long while.
Thomas Messenger is a Labour Party activist.