Keir Starmer targets Johnson as he portrays a new-look Labour post-Corbyn
By Sam Blewett and Geraldine Scott, PA Political Staff
The coronavirus pandemic may have overshadowed his tenure so far, but Sir Keir Starmer sought to define the future of Labour under his leadership during his first in-person conference speech as leader.
Here is what we learned during the near 90-minute address to the packed venue in Brighton on Wednesday – both from the leader and the audience watching him.
– Starmer shown the red card by a loud left
It would have come as no surprise to him that some activists in the party still supporting Jeremy Corbyn would heckle the new leader as he takes the party back towards the centre ground.
Sir Keir was hit by chants of “shame” and calls to support a £15 minimum wage, as some held up sheets of red paper to give the appearance of giving him the red card.
But he was well prepared to hit back at his detractors, asking them whether they were “shouting slogans, or changing lives”.
“At this time on a Wednesday it’s normally the Tories that are heckling me, it doesn’t bother me then, and it doesn’t bother me now,” he said.
The heckles were drowned out by far louder applause on the conference floor.
– Ovation for New Labour as Starmer buries the Corbyn era
Some of the most rapturous applause came when he highlighted gains made under Tony Blair’s Labour government.
Supporters gave a standing ovation when Sir Keir offered the Tories “a lesson in levelling up” by noting his own party’s record on introducing a minimum wage, boosting education and the NHS.
“You want levelling up? That’s levelling up,” the leader said after noting the record of the last Labour government.
Having got through changes to party rules designed to prevent a more radical MP becoming Labour leader, Sir Keir blasted Mr Corbyn’s record as Labour leader without naming his predecessor.
“To the voters who thought we were unpatriotic or irresponsible or that we looked down on them, I say these simple but powerful words,” Sir Keir said.
“We will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government.”
– Sir Keir deploys his own three-word slogan as he mentions the B-word
As the former shadow Brexit secretary under Mr Corbyn who argued for a potential fresh referendum on EU membership, Brexit is a thorny issue for Sir Keir.
But he chose to take the issue on, criticising Boris Johnson’s handling of failures arising from Brexit rather than the departure itself.
“The economic inheritance from the Tories will be appalling: A botched Brexit followed by Covid has left a big hole,” Sir Keir said.
“The Government is learning that it is not enough to Get Brexit Done. You need a plan to Make Brexit Work.”
– Starmer seeks to define Labour as ‘patriots’
The left has long struggled with being vocally patriotic in England, but Sir Keir has spotted a way to tackle the Tories on the very subject they hope to thrive on.
He cited the Government’s battle with England footballer Marcus Rashford as he campaigned on free school meals, and then took the fight to Priti Patel.
“But I couldn’t believe it when Rashford and the England team took the knee to highlight and condemn the racism they have had to endure, the Home Secretary encouraged people to boo,” Sir Keir said.
“Well, here in this conference hall we are patriots. When we discuss the fine young men and women who represent all our nations, we don’t boo. We get to our feet and we cheer.”
Sir Keir also praised the military and declared Labour to be “the party of Nato”.
– Comparisons aplenty with Boris Johnson
Sir Keir mentioned the Prime Minister around 10 times as he sought to paint himself as a “responsible leader with clear values” who can “make this nation anew” after Covid.
He said he was fighting for justice for Stephen Lawrence while Mr Johnson was writing an article “declaring a war on traffic cones”.
“I think he is a trivial man. I think he’s a showman with nothing left to show. I think he’s a trickster who has performed his one trick,” Sir Keir said.
And he contrasted his crusades for justice against Mr Johnson’s behaviour, after the Prime Minister backed Dominic Cummings following his lockdown trip to Barnard Castle and initially Matt Hancock following his rule-breaking clinch.
Sir Keir said “the one thing about Boris Johnson that offends everything I stand for is his assumption that the rules don’t apply to him”.
– New policies seek to define his vision for Labour
Sir Keir fleshed out a number of new policies for Labour during his speech after facing accusations that he has stayed silent on exactly how a government under him would look.
He said a Labour administration would make it a “national mission” over 10 years to retrofit homes and the party said the policy would require an annual investment of £6 billion.
Sir Keir also said “spending on mental health will never be allowed to fall” under Labour, as he pledged to deliver mental health treatment to all those who need it within a month.
The promise would see treatment – rather than just assessment – start sooner and would place a focus on the wellbeing of young people with hubs and support in schools
He also focused on education, announcing “Labour will launch the most ambitious school improvement plan in a generation” and a focus on practical and digital skills for young people.
– Family, past and present
Sir Keir filled his speech with references to his family, starting with his parents Rodney and Josephine Starmer who he said had been driven by the promise that their children’s lives would be better than theirs.
He spoke about his mother, who was a nurse and he said instilled in him the “ethic of service” and the principle of care but he also noted she was a long-term patient of the NHS, having suffered with Still’s disease.
While he said his father, a toolmaker, gave him a “deep respect for the dignity of work”.
He tied up the family message by bringing his wife Victoria on to the stage as he received a lengthy standing ovation from activists.