starmer-gets-‘house-in-order’-but-can-he-start-to-close-gap-between-labour-and-tories-in-voters’-eyes?

Starmer gets ‘house in order’ but can he start to close gap between Labour and Tories in voters’ eyes?

It was the speech Sir Keir Starmer had waited almost 18 months to deliver –  a chance to hit back at the criticisms of his leadership that have built up through the pandemic.

Having been accused of being too timid in proposing policy, there were new announcements.

Having been accused of lacking charisma and personal touch, there were tales from his past and a claim to be driven by an “ethic of service”.

Sir Keir Starmer has concluded a party looking inward and fighting itself cannot win over voters in the numbers necessary to overturn Boris Johnson's majority

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Sir Keir Starmer has concluded a party looking inward and fighting itself cannot win over voters in the numbers necessary to overturn Boris Johnson’s majority

And having been accused of being ineffective in holding the government to account, there was a concerted attack on Boris Johnson – “a trivial man… a showman with nothing left to show”.

But the real significance of this speech, and indeed this conference, was not Sir Keir’s rebuttal of his critics – but his own critique of the Labour Party and the root of its problems.

He has concluded a party looking inward and fighting itself cannot win over voters in the numbers necessary to overturn Boris Johnson’s majority.

In practical terms, that conclusion is the reason for the party rule changes voted through in Brighton.

Those changes make it harder for rivals to mount a leadership challenge against him, and allows MPs to spend less time guarding against deselection by their constituency parties.

This thinking was encapsulated early in the speech, when Sir Keir said: “It was so important to get our own house in order this week, and we have done that.”

People watch Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speak at Britain's Labour Party annual conference in Brighton, Britain, September 29, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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People watch Sir Keir speak in Brighton

But that was also the line which prompted the first of several bouts jeering from sections of the audience.

Starmer waved the heckles away, with a quip that he was used to being on the receiving end of derision on Wednesday lunchtimes at PMQs.

It was no surprise he had prepared responses for such eventualities.

Team Starmer understands that the left of the party perceive the seemingly obscure rule changes passed at this conference as an act of war.

So is it a war he can win?

Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer with his wife Victoria after delivering his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton, East Sussex. Picture date: Wednesday September 29, 2021.

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Sir Keir with his wife Victoria after delivering his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference

Starmer’s allies would point to the fact the rules were approved by conference shows he has support.

And while there were hecklers in the hall, they were not recognisable figures – there was no figurehead or prominent MP they were rallying around.

Corbyn remains an icon for the left, but as a faction they are leaderless. Starmer is unlikely to be cowed while that is the case.

Having got his “house in order”, the test for Keir Starmer now is whether he can start to close the gap between Labour and the Conservatives in the eyes of voters.

People in the audience attempt to disrupt the speech by Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer at the party conference in Brighton. Picture date: Wednesday September 29, 2021.

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People in the audience attempt to disrupt Sir Keir’s speech

Throughout the pandemic, Starmer’s allies have explained away poor polling numbers by saying he was yet to have the opportunity to properly present himself to the party activists, and the public.

Today’s speech gave him that opportunity. If it fails to translate into improved perceptions of his leadership, Sir Keir and his team will need to find some new explanations.