By Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill and Alistair Smout
LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) -Labour leader Keir Starmer appealed to voters on Tuesday to back his vision for Britain, saying his revamped opposition party was best placed to turn the country’s fortunes around by boosting economic growth, building houses and restoring hope.
In possibly his last speech as an opposition leader to the party faithful before an election expected next year, Starmer shrugged off a protester who threw glitter over him before launching into a particularly personal speech.
He set out his frustration over what he described as an out of touch governing Conservative Party and aware that, while voters are angry at the government, they might not yet be enamoured with Labour despite its hefty lead in opinion polls.
“I have to warn you: our way back from this will be hard,” he told a packed conference hall in the northern English city of Liverpool, where party members gave him a dozen standing ovations.
“But know this. What is broken can be repaired. What is ruined can be rebuilt. Wounds do heal. And ultimately that (Conservative) project … will crash against the spirit of working people in this country. They are the source of my hope.”
He promised to help rebuild “a Britain strong enough, stable enough, secure enough for you to invest your hope, your possibility, your future”, one where there was certainty “that things will be better for your children”.
After becoming leader in 2020 following Labour’s worst election defeat for 84 years under veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer said his party was now ready to govern with a programme for two five-year terms or a “decade of renewal”.
He pointed to the demonstrator who interrupted his speech as a reason why “we changed our party” from one of protest to one in a position to challenge Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives.
He said he would “get Britain building”, promising the construction of new towns and urban renewal schemes to offer people a better chance of buying their own homes, to restore the state-run National Health Service and to spur investment.
Policies, he said, that were “totally focused on the interests of working people” – a message to ease concerns on the left of the party that Labour had become too close to big business, and would press on with a green agenda.
“We will take this fight on,” he said of those blocking new construction. “That’s a Britain built to last.”
Ross Garrod, the Labour leader of the London borough of Merton, said he was convinced of a victory at the next election.
“It was a very positive, upbeat speech and he spoke about building a Britain that I want to live in. It showed a clear dividing line with the Conservatives who just want to divide us whereas Labour wants to unite Britain.”
Buoyed by a victory in an election for a parliamentary seat in Scotland last week and about 20 points ahead in the polls, Starmer and his party are increasingly confident of their chances at the next election, but the message from Labour lawmakers is one of not becoming complacent.
Instead, Starmer, his aides said, was keen to offer hope and reassurance to not only his party but to voters who are increasingly disillusioned with politics after years of turmoil following Britain’s vote to leave in the European Union in 2016.
With Britain’s public finances in dire straits, both parties have used their annual gatherings to spell out the fiscal constraints on what they can do, with the Conservatives cancelling part of a high-speed rail line at their conference.
The so-called conference season in British politics has sounded the starting gun on election campaigning, with Starmer’s top team of policy chiefs warning party members that the run-up to the vote could become ugly.
Starmer was clear – his party had to remain disciplined against Conservative attacks.
“They’re always up for a fight to save their own skin, and this isn’t over, in fact it’s barely begun. So we have to be disciplined, focused, ready to fight back, and confident … because we have come so far already,” he said.
“Britain must, Britain can, Britain will get its future back.”
(Reporting by Elizabeth PiperEditing by Gareth Jones, Michael Holden and Bernadette Baum)