“My Mum worked for the NHS. My sister worked for the NHS. My wife still works for the NHS. The NHS runs through my family like a stick of rock –”
(Man carrying bullhorn, with a stop-watch hung around his neck, emerges from behind the conference stage.)
“Keir, baby, you’re doin’ just great, but we’re goin’ for a retake. Enough already with the family history – it’s like, ya know, all that Noah begat Shem stuff in the Bible. The stick of rock is kinda biblical too. This movie is about a charismatic leader, a guy whose movement is on the cusp of takin’ power, but compassionate too – kinda Leni Riefenstahl meets Walt Disney. Okay, people, let’s take it up a notch! I wanna hear the crowd really roar – like when Bill Clinton arrives on stage at the Democratic Women’s Caucus…”
The problem with Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour Party conference was the synthetic nature of the occasion. It was contrived, not real. Party conferences can be divided, hubristic, lacklustre, stage-managed or accident-prone (as with Theresa May’s disastrous outing in 2017, when she had a hacking cough, was handed a P45 on stage and the letters of the slogan began to fall off the wall). After decades of observing such events, seasoned commentators develop an instinct for the feel of the occasion. Labour’s felt bogus, unreal, ham acted.
The delivery of Starmer’s speech looked like the making of a feature film about a political leader and his followers preparing for power, rather than a real-life event. There was a feeling of licensed hubris about it, as if the participants feared, in their hearts, there would be little cause for celebration once they left the film set and the moment had passed.
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Starmer’s was a ridiculous speech, made to sound reasonable by its matter-of-fact delivery. It was long on sloganising, short on ideas. It would have gone down more plausibly last week, before Friday’s “fiscal event” – Kwasi Kwarteng’s equivalent euphemism to Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”. Last week, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng blew the entire post-War fiscal settlement, apart from some of the Thatcher years, out of the water, sending shock waves around the globe. Succeed or fail, it was the biggest economic and philosophical revolution in Britain of most people’s lifetimes.
Against that backdrop, Keir Starmer blandly announced: “But people need more. They are crying out for change, looking for decisive leadership.” ¿Qué? Did people not get monumental change and startlingly decisive leadership, as recently as last Friday? Perhaps Sir Keir doesn’t read the papers or own a television. That was one of the glaring defects of the speech: it had been written before les événements of 23 September and only some parts had been changed, leaving a cut-and-paste job of disjointed claims and denunciations.
So, in those parts of the oration that took account of the fiscal earthquake, what was Labour’s response? To present that multi-faceted revolution as a simple Tory tax cut for the benefit of the rich, at the expense of the poor, and to promise to restore the 45p tax rate. Labour may boast of having dislodged the Corbynistas, but Starmer’s aggressive promotion of class warfare shows the leopard has not changed its spots.
Here, in front of the world’s media, is Starmer’s analysis of a fiscal revolution that has provoked global debate: “The Government has lost control of the British economy – and for what? They’ve crashed the pound – and for what? Higher interest rates. Higher inflation. Higher borrowing. And for what? Not for you. Not for working people. For tax cuts for the richest 1 per cent in our society. Don’t forget. Don’t forgive.”
That is the infantile response of a man, the whole tenor of whose speech was to project himself as an incoming prime minister. It might play well at the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, but for the wider nation and global community it is embarrassingly inadequate, a crude attempt to resurrect class warfare: apparently, it’s Jeremy Corbyn out and Aneurin Bevan in, as Labour regresses to “lower than vermin” mode.
The speech was a mélange of slogans, anecdotes and flaunting the credentials of inverted snobbery (“I grew up in a pebble-dashed semi”) in the “Didn’t ’ave shoes when I were a lad, wrapping newspapers round me feet were sheer blewdy luxury” genre. Claiming Labour was concerned for business, Starmer said of business leaders: “They don’t tell me the problems they face will be solved by corporation tax cuts.” Of course not, they tell him: “We’re backing you, Keir, because we don’t think our businesses are taxed enough.” In what milieu does Starmer meet these entrepreneurs opposed to corporation tax cuts?
Inevitably, there were the anecdotal encounters, in the hallowed tradition of Joe the Plumber and Brenda from Bristol: “In Grimsby a few months ago I was really struck by a woman I met. (For God’s sake, keep it clean, Keir!) She said something to me which was really simple: ‘I don’t just want to survive; I want to live.’ ” Starmer should have been aware that conversations with members of the royal family are confidential and he should not have quoted this clearly identifiable Christmas cracker motto sentiment from the Duchess of Sussex.
Most significantly and transparently, a section of Starmer’s speech was couched in an imaginary future, following a term of Labour government: “We’ve defeated the cost-of-living crisis (How?) and the clouds of anxiety have lifted… Business has the certainty to invest… Our entrepreneurial spirit – unleashed (encouraged by the restored 45p tax rate?).” What this pipe-dream Labour prime minister glossed over was the five-year period preceding those green sunlit uplands and the real-life mechanisms that achieved this Utopia.
That was not the only fantasy canvassed by Starmer. Labour has a new bogey mantra, appropriated from Joe Biden: Trickle-down economics”. There is no such phenomenon. There never has been, it is a derogatory term invented by the American left. There is no such school of economic thought; no government, anywhere – least of all Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng – has ever practised it. Labour spin doctors may think it a useful caricature of Conservative policy, but foreign commentators, at times of crisis, scrutinise opposition parties as potential governments.
Once they – and the markets – pick up on the economic illiteracy epitomised by that derogatory term and which permeated Keir Starmer’s speech, they will discount Labour as serious contenders to govern the British economy and such assessments have a way of catapulting back onshore. Overall, Labour’s credibility is non-existent and this speech proclaimed it.
When the leader of a political party, in a developed parliamentary democracy, in 2022, begins his speech by announcing:“We’ve stopped being antisemitic”, it is a sobering measure of where that party has come from and how far it still has to go before becoming electable. A 17 per cent – and higher – opinion poll lead, two years before a general election, is as stable as a fistful of mercury. That is why the mood at Liverpool was discernibly brittle. Starmer’s Labour is a Heath-Robinson contraption held together with string.
Proclaiming Labour the party of home ownership, Starmer declared: “I’ve seen home ownership rise almost my entire life…” Yes; and since he was born in 1962 he will have an adult memory of how Labour fought tooth-and-nail against Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy, defending councils’ prerogative to own people’s homes and even dictate what colour they could paint their front door. Any credible political stance Labour adopts is invariably a reluctant surrender to the realities of Tory thinking – the latest being its embrace of the monarchy.
There was one interesting segment of Starmer’s speech: the attack on the SNP, whose decline Labour has rightly detected. After 15 years of misrule, most recently highlighted by the growing tax differential between Scotland and England as a consequence of the recent fiscal event, the SNP is showing signs of finally running out of road. That is good news for the Union, but Tory strategists should take note that if Labour recaptures some of its lost Scottish strongholds, it would make securing a UK majority at Westminster more difficult for the Conservatives.
However, if the next election returns the Tories to minority government, as the largest party, Starmer might rue his downright commitment to “No deal under any circumstances” with the leftist SNP.
The climactic error of this speech and conference was its unrestrained commitment to the Green agenda in its chimerical Net Zero incarnation. Energy bills may have been capped, but there is still a bad winter ahead. The electorate is unlikely to emerge from that experience greatly enamoured of the Green extravagance that has contributed to its woes. The next five years are likely to witness a sea change in public opinion, when politicians who have championed the Net Zero multi-trillion-pound fantasy will find themselves out of favour.
But behind all the hype at the Labour conference lay the unspoken fear: what if the Truss/Kwarteng axis of evil does not crash and burn? What if markets are grossly overreacting? Britain is free of debt in foreign currencies and has borrowed money at negative 2 per cent real interest. Markets do not seriously fear a British default. Domestically, a lot could go wrong. But what if it doesn’t? Where would that leave Labour?
The reality is that Labour, leadership and delegates, was acting: the audience was behaving like extras in a feature film (Andy Burnham as The Mancunian Candidate?), the applause contrived, the victory theme premature, two years before an election. This was a nervous, self-doubting attempt to re-create the hubris of Neil Kinnock’s Sheffield rally, when he ludicrously capered on stage, making a strange triumphalist gesture, as if pulling an invisible lavatory chain. That ended well.
Keir Starmer, seemingly semi-oblivious to the dynamic activity of a previously torpid Conservative government, was content to wallow in synthetically manufactured hubris: “Because as in 1945, 1964, 1997, this is a Labour moment.”
“Yea, great, Keir baby – it’s a wrap!”
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