Keir Starmer is clear he's not Corbyn – now we must wait to find out who he is
Have you noticed that the Labour party has changed since Jeremy Corbyn stopped being leader?
You’d be forgiven for having missed it. Sir Keir Starmer and his team have been very quiet about it. Well, they did change the party’s slogan to ‘A New Leadership’.
Oh, and Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy did go on Radio 4’s Today programme this week to say things like: ‘I think you’ll see a real change in tone and approach from the Labour Party … We stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests and we will always put that first.’ (Nandy was then attacked by roughly a third of Twitter for saying, on national radio, what supposedly amounted to ‘Britain First’).
And if you missed that, there was the speech Starmer gave to Labour’s virtual conference. Among other things, he explained that ‘family values mean the world’ to him, and that he wants Britain ‘to be the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in. A country in which we put family first’.
Then to really hammer it all home, he addressed the voters who went Conservative in December, telling them: ‘We’re under new leadership. We love this country as you do.’.
For those who missed the speech, the party posted choice quotes on social media, with a Union Jack background. See? Very subtle.
Glibness aside, the message was clear: the years of Corbyn and his ‘dodgy’ views are over, and it is time for good, honest, patriotic Britons to return to their natural home in the Labour party.
No more virtue signalling or woolly equivocations; this is a party pitching for the centre-ground.
The change in tone has – predictably – not been popular with everyone; Starmer’s speech was welcomed by an irate statement from Momentum, and widespread critiques from the left-wing of the party.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are now telling their voters that Starmer’s ‘new leadership’ gambit is hot air; that as a ‘key member of Jeremy Corbyn’s top team’ he is ‘just more of the same old Labour’, no matter what he says.
As for the electorate, we have to sit and wait; it is far too early to tell if this new approach will be effective.
What we do know is that the line the Labour party has to tread is a fine one, which is obvious by the way it has already been attacked from both sides.
On the one hand, pro-Corbyn factions have a point; a left-wing party that leans too heavily into issues like patriotism, security and family values risks doing the Conservatives’ job for them.
There is no out-Torying the Tories, and moving the debate onto issues mostly favoured by right-leaning voters is often a losing game.
On the other, the Conservative Campaign Headquarters’ attack lines should worry Labour. As Ed Miliband found with his ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs and awkward attempts to appear tough on culturally fraught issues, you cannot pretend to be someone you are not because it is electorally convenient.
Voters are not stupid and can tell if a leader has found himself outside his comfort zone.
One way out of this quandary, of course, would be for Labour to properly set out its stall, and announce some bold policies to show what they are now about.
That they didn’t do it for this conference was interesting; that they made a point of explaining why, even more so.
‘We’re not going to win back those we’ve lost with a single speech or a clever policy offer,’ Starmer admitted in his speech. ‘Trust takes time. It starts with being a credible opposition. With taking the job seriously. That’s what we will do.’,
And indeed, the leader had some decent attack lines on the prime minister, comparing the lives they led before politics: ‘While Boris Johnson was writing flippant columns about bendy bananas, I was defending victims and prosecuting terrorists. While he was being sacked by a newspaper for making up quotes, I was fighting for justice and the rule of law.’
In a nutshell: the electorate now knows that Keir Starmer is not Boris Johnson, and it knows that Keir Starmer is not Jeremy Corbyn. That was the easy part – what now?
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