Keir Starmer used his party conference speech to sharpen his message and go heavy on patriotism in a pitch to 'hero voters'

·3-min read

As an exercise in party management, this has been the most successful conference for Labour since Tony Blair's last in 2006.

There was buyer's remorse the moment Gordon Brown took over in 2007; the conferences of the Ed Miliband years left deeper scars than evident in public; and that was nothing compared to the civil war of the Corbyn era.

Last year, Keir Starmer's first proper conference was consumed by clashes with his left flank and Corbyn groupies.

This year, his own party - with a very different membership turning up in Liverpool - decided to give Keir Starmer pretty much a clear run.

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That's meant the question all week has been whether today's speech connects with the public, makes an argument for a better Britain that voters can believe and is memorable enough to impact on a noisy political scene.

To do this, Keir Starmer has changed speechwriters. Gone were the authors of last year's windy treatise that overstayed its welcome.

In its place is Alan Lockey, who worked for Tony Blair's policy chief Matthew Taylor at the Royal Society of Arts. The change was noticeable: the speech more muscular, more tightly constructed and with sharper phrasing than anything previously seen from this leader.

The three themes listeners were bludgeoned with all the way through the hour were patriotism, solidarity and integrity.

Praise for the "remarkable sovereign"; invoking how the "Late Queen would turn our collar up and face the storm"; talk of "British power to the British people"; arguing the Tories are responsible for "redistribution from the poor to the rich" - a highly targeted speech.

This is because there is a clear political strategy behind this approach.

Under the guidance of pollster and strategist Deborah Mattinson, Labour is prioritising winning back a slice of the electorate they call "hero voters" - one-time Labour supporters who backed Brexit and then voted Tory in 2019 but who they think are up for grabs at the next election.

An overt drive by Starmer to stress his patriotism, sense of solidarity and integrity is only one part of Team Starmer's drive to win back "hero voters". The other was to hammer the differences between himself and Labour's Corbyn era.

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The former regime may have played a comparatively tiny role in this year's conference compared to 2021, yet still Starmer decided the public needs to be reminded.

Again, the repudiation of antisemitism. Again, another standing ovation. A different membership in Liverpool this year, and Starmer attempting to use that to his advantage. The Tories the enemy of the speech, but the Corbyn era an almost equal opponent.

One big announcement at the heart of the speech - the creation of a British state-owned energy company to rival France's EDF, known as Great British Energy - got a standing ovation.

As he acknowledged, its birth will be tricky, its role in the market yet to be fleshed out - it is more political signal than fully fleshed out change. Whether this idea will stay uppermost in voters' minds is yet to be seen.

But the other striking thing about the speech was the way he wanted to signal confidence.

By addressing Brexit head-on - which for a long time has unnerved party strategists - attacking the government for failing to "grasp the nettle" and promising to deliver "control" in a way the Tories have failed. This would not have been possible 18 months ago.

A good party conference speech provides verbal weapons for their troops to deploy on doorsteps in the months ahead. Starmer provided his team with options - pretty much for the first time. Let's see if his flock use them.