Keir Starmer promised a decade of national renewal after 13 years of Conservative government, as he set out his vision for his UK Labour Party returning to power at a general election expected next year.
(Bloomberg) — Keir Starmer promised a decade of national renewal after 13 years of Conservative government, as he set out his vision for his UK Labour Party returning to power at a general election expected next year.
“What is broken can be repaired,” the Labour leader told a packed hall at Labour’s annual conference on Tuesday — urging voters to turn their backs on “never-ending Tory decline with a decade of national renewal.”
There was drama at the start of Starmer’s keynote speech, as a protester came on stage behind him to pour glitter over his head. “Protest not power,” Starmer said after taking off his jacket. “That’s why we changed our party.”
The four-day gathering in Liverpool, northwest England, comes at a pivotal time for Starmer as he tries to boost Labour’s profile among undecided voters and convince them he’s ready to become prime minister. With a national vote due by January 2025 at the latest but widely expected earlier, Labour adopted the tone of a government-in-waiting at an upbeat conference.
Yet there is still a sense there is more persuading to do.
Starmer’s overhaul of Labour since the leadership of his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was evident as he declared in his speech that “Israel must always have the right to defend her people” after the attack by militant group Hamas at the weekend. Labour activists rose to their feet to applaud.
“I utterly condemn the senseless murder of men, women and children in cold blood by the terrorists of Hamas,” Starmer said.
Labour has led Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives by about 20 points in opinion polls for months, but after Corbyn led the party to its worst defeat since 1935 four years ago, the party needs another 123 seats for an outright majority.
Starmer expelled Corbyn from the parliamentary party months after taking over in 2020, and has since moved Labour closer to the center-ground of politics where he believes elections are won. During the conference, his grip over Labour was put to the test when Corbyn, who shared platforms with Hamas supporters before he became leader, repeatedly declined to condemn the militant group’s attack on Israel over the weekend.
The next day, though, deputy leader Angela Rayner led activists in a moment of silence for “all the victims” of Hamas’s attack. It reflected the serious tone Labour is aiming for — and underscored just how the top team is in charge now.
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves is central to that, and she and Starmer made clear on Monday they plan to fight the election on the economy. That’s political ground traditionally claimed by the Tories. In a speech that drew repeated standing ovations, Reeves set out her priority to spur growth, including by easing planning rules on big infrastructure.
Starmer has promised to “get Britain building” — contrasting Labour’s approach with Sunak’s decision to scrap a northern leg of the UK’s flagship high-speed rail line. The premier’s Conservative Party conference last week was marked by ministers, including Sunak himself, adopting the rhetoric of US-style culture wars to excite the Tory base.
But Starmer still faces a challenge to set out a compelling vision for government. Polls show that while voters are turning away from a chaotic Conservative party, they are not immediately switching to Labour. A YouGov survey last week found 28% of respondents did not intend to vote or did not know who they were going to vote for.
There’s evidence, too, that people are still unsure what Starmer stands for. “Nothing” and “don’t know” were among the most popular terms associated with Starmer in a word cloud from focus groups by think tank More in Common for the BBC. That’s worrying for Labour so close to a general election, which must be held by January 2025 at the latest.
“Our job is to shoulder the burden for working people, carry the load, not add to it,” Starmer said. “We have to be a government that takes care of the big decisions so working people have the freedom to enjoy what they love. More time, more energy, more possibility, more life.”
(Updates with Starmer comments throughout)
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