The Tories are in a terrible state. No one trusts them to do anything, and even fewer than no one trusts them to tell the truth about what they haven’t done. They’re so far down in the polls they might well be down and out.
This is the time for Keir Starmer to capitalise. And Keir Starmer isn’t stupid. He knows that just because the Tories lose the public’s trust, it doesn’t mean Labour simply inherits it. Trust has to be earned.
So this, in other words, is the time do a Big Speech. Which he did, in Birmingham. He even said in it those words above, the ones about trust.
And it was only really at this point that things began to go slightly wrong. Because to do a Big Speech, you need to do more than to book a room and send out the invitations. You’ve also got to have Something to Say. And though his lips moved with commendable certainty throughout, and the sound that emerged from between them was certainly his voice, he didn’t have anything to say at all.
He had some problems to list. The ones we’ve all heard a million times. Soaring energy costs, rising inflation, the two problems, in short – which most people probably don’t actually think are the government’s fault, which would be happening whoever was in charge – and there’s very little indeed that can be done about them.
What he had, he said, was a “contract with the British people.” And the British people, in turn, had a contract with the Labour Party. Keir Starmer used to be a lawyer, you know, so you might be expecting that contract to be really long and boring, and full of thousands of sub clauses, but don’t worry, he explained, it’s actually very short.
At this point he paused for laughter, then his eyes briefly widened with sheer panic as he realised that none was forthcoming, and had to fill that pause with an agonising chuckle of his own.
So, what’s in the contract exactly? Security, Prosperity and Respect. That’s it. That’s the contract. Those three words. So if you’ve got up this morning in a state of general fear and dread about going back to work at the start of what is almost certainly going to be another dismal year, then things are looking up already; as you’ve now got a three word contract with the Labour Party that you absolutely didn’t ask for.
“Politics,” he said, is a serious business. It isn’t, “a branch of the entertainment industry”. A decent dig at the Tories, naturally, but it’s not actually a crime to keep your audience entertained. And there are many industries where you won’t get far if you stand up in front of a room full of people and haven’t written down anything beforehand that’s actually worth saying to them. Just ask a teacher, or a lecturer, or a salesperson – or even a lawyer or a politician.
It was a speech so instantly forgettable that a minute after it had been delivered, Keir Starmer couldn’t remember it himself. He had issued his three word contract, and in the questions at the end, had to pause for quite some time and take a desperate sip of water while trying to remember what the third one was. “Prosperity, Security and err, err, erm, err Respect.”
Part of what he was trying to achieve was to reboot the image of the Labour Party. He stood in front of two Union Jacks. He praised the Attlee government; and he tried to remind whoever was listening that it was Labour who established Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which might be a bit of a problem in a couple of years time when it will definitely be in his interest to do a deal with the Greens but probably won’t be able to.
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And it was also, he explained, the Labour Party who took the solidarity and community that was built up in the war and turned it in to the National Health Service, and that maybe, with Covid, he could sort of somehow do the same.
But can he? He pointedly praised, in his speech, Labour’s three great leaders – Attlee, Wilson and Blair – the ones, in other words, who won elections and used their power to change things. It is a fact of British political life that to win, Labour leaders have to be of exceptional quality. And two years after becoming leader, Starmer is a long way shy of settling the question of his own exceptionalism.
It’s not that he’s wrong to be doing this kind of thing. The flags, the patriotism, the don’t-worry-you-can-still-vote-Labour-if-you-voted-for-Brexit.
Rebranding the image of the Labour party in the public eye will be a slow, drip-drip process. It always is. He has more years to do it. And he might just get there. But standing in front of a flag is no substitute for having nothing of any substance to say.
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