Labour now has a leader the Tories MUST take seriously: Keir Starmer failed to confront the hard-Left but his keynote speech shows he is a more effective politician than most people think, says STEPHEN GLOVER
Will he be chuckling about the absurd length of the keynote address? Might he be remarking on the absence of good jokes, the lack of striking new policies, and Sir Keir’s possibly excessive references to his parents and their influence on him?
Or will he be rubbing his head thoughtfully and reflecting that, although the Labour leader may not be a great orator, he is a more effective politician than most people have given him credit for?
I hope the latter. Before yesterday’s performance, I believed that the Tories’ disparagement of Sir Keir as a wooden and uninspiring leader – who is furthermore supposedly in permanent thrall to the hard-Left – was unwise.
Now I am even more certain that, despite his defects, Sir Keir is someone whom the Conservative Party would do well to take seriously. I don’t say that he will ever be prime minister. But it is no longer inconceivable.
Sir Keir Starmer (pictured) is someone whom the Conservative Party would do well to take seriously. I don’t say that he will ever be prime minister. But it is no longer inconceivable
Not that it was a great speech. It will be long forgotten when some may still remember Neil Kinnock’s 1985 Labour Party conference address in which he berated the hard-Left in language far more eloquent and passionate than his successor’s measured offering yesterday.
Sir Keir didn’t take on the hard-Left, and fielded their intermittent heckling with polite good humour. His critics will say that he was too lily-livered to tell the Corbynistas what to do with their mad ideas. Well, maybe.
But one can look at it another way. How much of this generally sound speech could Jeremy Corbyn have delivered? I’d say about ten per cent at most.
Corbyn would never have welcomed back, in Sir Keir’s warm and emotional way, the former Labour MP Louise Ellman. She left the party in despair after its leadership had become tainted by anti-Semitism.
Nor would Corbyn have celebrated the family, praised the military, defended the Union, described himself as ‘patriotic’, supported business, or made sympathetic references to Tony Blair. Sir Keir did all these things.
All words, you may say, and that is true. But a political leader must choose his or her words very carefully. Once spoken in public, they cannot be easily disowned. They are defining. Sir Keir defined himself yesterday as a man of the centre whose political beliefs won’t be inimical to many Tories.
Of course it would have been wonderful to have seen him laying into the Corbynistas. The fact that he didn’t suggests to me that he doesn’t yet feel powerful enough to take them on.
And that, of course, gives us cause to wonder how effective his conversion to the centre-ground really is. The Left has not gone away. It has an ally in Labour’s foul-mouthed deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who a few days ago outrageously described senior Tories as ‘scum’.
Moreover, the Left was much in evidence in a number of non- binding resolutions passed by the conference. It voted for sanctions against Israel, a £15-an-hour national minimum wage, and (in defiance of Sir Keir) the nationalisation of energy companies.
Sir Keir didn’t take on the hard-Left, and fielded their intermittent heckling (pictured) with polite good humour. His critics will say that he was too lily-livered to tell the Corbynistas what to do with their mad ideas. Well, maybe
So the Left is still unbowed. It lurks, like some wounded but truculent monster, eager to attack the Labour leader whenever it has the opportunity to do so. I’d say it remains more powerful than it was when Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994.
Nonetheless, a corner has been turned, and Sir Keir can’t go back even if he wants to. The question is whether he has the guile, courage and perseverance to grapple successfully with the Left in the battles that lie ahead.
All that is certain is that, whatever happens, a member of the hard-Left is never going to lead the Labour Party in the foreseeable future. Although he failed to persuade the trade unions to accept ‘one member, one vote’, Sir Keir did manage to get the conference to accept a crucial reform.
In future, the number of MPs required by a candidate to get on the leadership ballot paper will double from ten to 20 per cent. Even with Labour’s diminished numbers in Parliament, this amounts to 40 MPs. No would-be Corbynista leader is ever going to receive that much support.
The country owes Sir Keir Starmer a vote of thanks for removing the possibility of the emergence of a hard-Left Labour leader who is somehow able to pull the wool over the electorate, and gain the keys to No 10.
Boris and his advisers should take note. The Labour leader will seek to fight the Tories on the middle ground. And he has, I believe, some advantages of character and temperament which could make him a formidable adversary
Surely this is proof that Sir Keir is serious about standing up to the Left. He may lack the charisma and chameleon-like quality of Tony Blair. But in common with Labour’s electorally most successful prime minister, he has grasped that his party can only achieve power from the political centre.
Which is why Boris and his advisers should take note. The Labour leader will seek to fight the Tories on the middle ground. And he has, I believe, some advantages of character and temperament which could make him a formidable adversary.
Let us imagine that he continues successfully in his project of shaking off the hard-Left. As the next election approaches, the two main parties may well be occupying similar political territory.
Both will worship the same insatiable god of the NHS. Both will present climate change, and all the economic sacrifices it demands, as the most pressing issue of the age. Both will accept high taxation, though it is likely that Sir Keir will accuse Mr Johnson of being profligate.
What advantages might the Labour leader have over the Prime Minister? He will portray himself as honest, dependable and competent, and he will represent Mr Johnson as dishonest, undependable and incompetent.
This was a major undercurrent of yesterday’s speech, in which the PM was chided for his incontrovertible failings during the pandemic, as well as his shortcomings during the present fuel crisis. Sir Keir spoke of the need for ‘a serious plan’ for government.
At one point he asserted that Boris Johnson ‘isn’t a bad man’ – this was a dig at Angela Rayner for absurdly describing him as ‘scum’ – but that he was merely a ‘trivial’ person. The PM’s alleged lack of seriousness is going to be one of the Labour leader’s favourite themes.
I certainly don’t think Boris is ‘trivial’. He is complex and deep. But he is also capable of being disorganised, indecisive and weak on detail. (Mrs Rayner, by the way, is 100 per cent incorrect in accusing him of being racist, homophobic and sexist. He is none of those things).
Wouldn’t it have been better if Mr Johnson had given an interview several days ago – rather than belatedly on Tuesday – reassuring the British public, and trying to put the largely confected fuel crisis in perspective?
I realise, of course, that he has been preoccupied with the death of his mother and her funeral. But a sharper, and perhaps more cold-hearted, leader would have spoken sooner.
Sir Keir may be worthy and dullish. But he also seems reliable and organised. There may come a time when the British public yearns for such a leader, if he really has disposed of the Left. Somehow Boris needs to get a grip.