A Working Class Hero Is Something To Be
Keir Starmer made the intent of his leader’s speech explicitly clear at the outset and in the surrounding briefings. His plan for Labour had always had three, distinct stages.
First, he wanted to fix the party. Given the sense of unity and relative absence of cranks at this year’s conference it is fair to say that Starmer has made astonishing progress on that front. Ten out of ten for both effort and accomplishment.
Second, he needed to establish that both the SNP and the Conservative Party were ‘unfit to govern’. Now, it would be hagiographic to give Starmer all of the credit for this particular mission having been accomplished. Keir Starmer didn’t make Boris Johnson attend illegal parties or Liz Truss add a couple of hundred a month to everyone’s mortgage or... well... the less said about Nicola Sturgeon the less chance of a letter from the lawyers. But, nonetheless, both of the UK’s non-Labour governing parties find their standing with the voters considerably down. Five out of ten for effort, ten out of ten for accomplishment.
Third, Starmer wanted to give the country the answer to the final, critical exam question: if not that lot, why Labour? That was the purpose of yesterday’s speech - to move on from castigating the incompetence and the impropriety of his enemies and to unpack his offer of a brighter future. And to Keir Starmer’s enormous credit, he chose to be brave.
Starmer talked about the need to build. To build houses - taking on Britain’s most powerful political movement and telling NIMBYs in no uncertain terms that their veto over homes for our young will be broken. But also, to build something else too. To build back Britain’s social fabric, to build respect back into our lives and our politics, to build the infrastructure we need and, to build consensus wherever possible. To build back Britain’s future.
It was not only Starmer’s best performance on the conference stage yet, it was also his most ambitious. He has been much criticised (including in these notes, on occasion) for the related issues of appearing to lack a coherent vision and appearing overly eager to jettison his policies and politics whenever convenient. Yesterday doesn’t make all that history go away. But it did begin to paint a picture of what ‘Starmerism’ is.
The feel of that emerging political personality is of a solid, earnest, pragmatic but unapologetically sentimental social democrat. It is of a country where it is possible for people to live decent lives and earn - through doing so - the respect and acclaim of their peers and their country.
This was also the centre of his direct appeal to Conservative voters - not to demonise or belittle them but to empathise with their predicament and to offer them his help in fixing the problems that their party has created in their betrayal of the values those voters hold dear. Not only was he convincing in this pitch, but he persuaded a Labour Conference to applaud him as he said it.
Where does this come from? It clearly grows out of his own childhood and his own journey but also from a sense that whilst the future matters most there is much in our recent past that we ought to reclaim. It is a conservative perspective - with a small c, of course - which says that we have lost a great deal but that in taking it back, we can make our country better for one another and for those who will inherit it.
That is why the promises on house building feel both real and important - it is from the security of the family home that Keir Starmer believes progress can be unlocked. It is in both his own life story and the very different trajectory of his father that he finds the inspiration for this insight. For Keir Starmer, the family home was a springboard. For his father, it was a towering achievement. Both are good, both are noble, both deserve respect.
Keir Starmer’s achievement yesterday - amidst the glitter and the standing ovations and all the weirdness of party conference - was to finally make the connection between Starmer the person and Starmer the politician. He made sense of his contradictions and his instincts and his story and, in doing so, he created a narrative and a platform that suits both him and the party he leads. It finally feels a comfortable fit.
Keir Starmer is in many ways the classic boy who done good. That can be an alienating thing to be, a liminal space between classes and cultures. But it can also give one a rare insight into the joins between the cliques and quirky corners of British society. Understanding what brings Britain together can be a superpower in British politics. Major had it. Blair had it for different reasons. In a lot of ways, Boris had it too.
Starmer the working class hero, back to do his bit for the place that made him, out of a sense of duty and sentimentality and - yes - love. It’s not the perfect pitch, perhaps. But it’s bigger and bolder and better than any he has articulated yet. And it’s some contrast, it has to be said, to what the other lot are selling. Ten out of ten for effort. The British public will score him on accomplishment.