Starmer Invokes Blair in Bid to Win Voters Lost to Johnson

Keir Starmer channeled the record and spirit of his opposition Labour Party’s last election-winning prime minister in his pitch to be Britain’s next leader, offering a mix of security, hope and patriotism as he set out his strategy to persuade voters to end more than a decade of Conservative rule.

(Bloomberg) — Keir Starmer channeled the record and spirit of his opposition Labour Party’s last election-winning prime minister in his pitch to be Britain’s next leader, offering a mix of security, hope and patriotism as he set out his strategy to persuade voters to end more than a decade of Conservative rule.

In a speech that was initially interrupted by a protester at his party’s annual conference in Liverpool, Starmer recalled Labour’s achievements under Tony Blair, such as cutting National Health Service waiting times and lifting children out of poverty, as well as the NHS-founding postwar government of Clement Attlee, to contrast with the Tory record since 2010.

“Thirteen years of ‘things can only get better’ versus thirteen years of ‘things can only get worse,’” Starmer said to a packed hall, a nod to the hit D:Ream song used in Blair’s successful 1997 general election campaign. He suggested that to “get Britain’s future back” and begin a “decade of renewal,” his party would have to exceed the achievements of past Labour governments.

The speech was the biggest of Starmer’s political career, the opening salvo in a campaign to oust Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a general election expected next year. His challenge is to win back support in Scotland as well as voters in post-industrial areas of England who were put off by former leader Jeremy Corbyn and drawn to Tory ex-premier Boris Johnson’s push in 2019 to deliver Brexit. Reversing that defeat four years ago would be an historic turnaround.

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That explains why despite being buoyed by a 20-point lead over the Tories — fueled by voters’ struggles with a cost-of-living crisis and resentment of the chaotic premierships of Johnson and Liz Truss — Labour still say there is work to do. Starmer’s priority was for voters to see Labour as a government-in-waiting, and contrast its disciplined messaging in Liverpool with the more chaotic scenes at the Tory conference last week in Manchester.

He’s also faced criticism that he’s not set out a positive vision of his own, beyond attacking the Tories. In his speech, Starmer promised to “bulldoze” Britain’s planning system to enable the building of new towns and 1.5 million new homes, and unlock investment in renewable energy. He would “hold out the hand of partnership to business,” to do so, he said. Starmer also pledged to shift the NHS’s focus from a “sickness service” to health care based on prevention.

“It’s brave to reject the hope of the easy answer. Courageous to choose instead the hope of the hard road,” he said. “What is broken can be repaired.”

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Reaction from across the political spectrum suggested Starmer may have captured the broad sentiment, especially on housing. The backing of trade unions was not surprising but praise from the free-market Adam Smith Institute spells potential trouble for the Tories. Housing is an issue that splits the governing party, with some Tory lawmakers in rural seats often opposed to building, while others worry about soaring rents and shortages.

“Starmer’s talk of a decade of national renewal and a big offer on housing all projected a sense of a government in waiting,” said Keiran Pedley, a research director at polling firm Ipsos, adding that reaching out to business echoed Blair’s so-called New Labour project in the 1990s.

To be sure, Starmer’s keynote lacked details, including on Labour’s investment plans. The Tories attacked him for not mentioning migrants arriving by boat from France, which Sunak has made a totemic issue for his own administration. Starmer said his focus is on tackling people-smuggling by criminal gangs.

The Labour leader’s brief mention of Brexit — he criticized the lies told about its benefits — will have disappointed activists in his own party who want closer ties to the European Union, if not a complete reversal of the split.

The speech was partly overshadowed by a protester who threw glitter over the Labour leader as he was about to begin. Starmer reacted by saying “protest or power” — the same phrase he’d used when heckled by Corbyn supporters two years ago when he was still trying to assert his dominance over the party.

“That protest made the entire point,” said Iain Anderson, executive chairman of public affairs agency H/Advisors Cicero. “He turned it to his advantage.”

The break from Corbyn was underscored later in his response to the attack on Israel by militant group Hamas, saying he “utterly” condemned the “senseless murder of men, women and children in cold blood by the terrorists.” It was a line Corbyn, who shared platforms with Hamas supporters before he became leader, would never have said, and Starmer got a standing ovation.

Knowing he needs to win back Scotland and the so-called Red Wall seats in England’s former industrial heartlands that were drawn to Johnson’s brand of populism, he talked up the benefits of investment in green energy and his party’s commitment to maintaining the United Kingdom. 

“I would suggest that actually the Labour Party has grounded itself exactly where the electorate is,” Starmer told ITV on Wednesday. Referring to recent special election wins, he said “the overwhelming sense is we’ve got this right, we’re in the right place and people want to vote for the Labour Party.”

He went on to say “we also need to keep doing it, we need to earn every vote wherever we go,” adding that he’s “bomb-proofing” Labour’s policies to ensure they are deliverable and the party is ready to govern.

Unlike Blair, who tended to underplay the issue of class, Starmer also in his speech promised to “tear down the barriers to opportunity.”

He repeatedly referenced higher energy and food bills, an issue dodged by Sunak in his own conference speech last week. The focus on household spending pressures “will resonate very well,” said Naomi Smith, CEO of Best for Britain, a lobby group that campaigns for issues such as closer ties between Britain and the EU and voting reform. “It was a speech that told the ordinary voter why he should be the next prime minister.”

Starmer concluded by warning his party that the Tories would fight dirty in the election campaign, which he said Labour would fight on economic growth — traditionally a Conservative strength. That battle, he said, has “just begun” and there’s no room for complacency.

Others see more scope for Labour optimism.

“It’s like 1997 but on stilts,” said Steven Fielding, politics professor at Nottingham University and author of several books on the Labour Party. “The Tories have given them such a wonderful platform, but he’s making sure he’s not going to stuff it up.”

–With assistance from Ellen Milligan, Kitty Donaldson and Alex Wickham.

(Updates with Starmer comment in 16th, 17th paragraphs.)

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