Keir Starmer pledged to establish a publicly owned energy company in his first year in office as he reflected Labour’s growing hope that the party is on the path back to power.
In a conference speech that set out his vision for government, the Labour leader told delegates they must “spend each day” between now and the next election working to earn the trust of the British people, adding: “As in 1945, 1964, 1997, this is a Labour moment.”
He said the Conservatives had “lost control of the British economy” and crashed the pound, not for the benefit of ordinary working people, but for tax cuts for the richest 1% in society.
“Don’t forget. Don’t forgive. The only way to stop this is with a Labour government.”
The Tories, he said, had wrecked public services through austerity.
“We have to be honest. I’d love to stand here and say Labour will fix everything. But the damage they’ve done – to our finances and public services – means this rescue will be harder than ever.”
However, he added: “Britain will get its future back.”
After a conference in Liverpool that was striking for the reappearance of corporate sponsors and business groups, Starmer claimed Labour was now the party of “sound money” as he sought to highlight divisions within the chaotic Tory government, with the first signs of friction emerging between Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng over how to deal with the tanking pound.
Conservative MPs said they had been called by party whips asking them how they felt about the proposals outlined in the mini-budget, with some MPs suggesting they were thinking hard about whether they could vote for the forthcoming finance bill.
In Liverpool, Starmer told the packed conference hall that being a party of sound money meant not being able to do things as quickly as Labour might like. “That’s what responsible government looks like. Because if you lose control of the economy, if you act irresponsibly – as the Tories have in spectacular fashion – then you lose the ability to do anything.”
His promise to set up a new state-backed company, Great British Energy, would help the UK reap the economic benefit from the boom in renewables, according to a Labour spokesperson. It would have operational independence but a mandate to invest in clean energy – wind, solar, tidal, nuclear and other emerging technologies.
Many British energy generators are owned or partially owned by foreign governments or companies, with a Trades Union Congress analysis suggesting that if the UK had its own state-backed company akin to France’s EDF, EnBW in Germany or Sweden’s Vattenfall, households could save up to £4,400 over the next two years.
The plan, which Labour said would not lead to the nationalisation of existing companies, is likely to be popular after a YouGov poll last month found that 47% of Tory voters, rising to 53% in “red wall” seats, favoured returning energy companies to public ownership, with just 28% opposed.
Starmer said the new energy business would be a “company that takes advantage of the opportunities in clean British power and because it’s right for jobs, because it’s right for growth, because it’s right for energy independence from tyrants like [Vladimir] Putin. Yes, Great British Energy will be publicly owned. British power to the British people.”
He also announced plans for a target of 70% home ownership – with local people, rather than buy-to-let landlords and second homeowners, getting first refusal – as well as a points-based immigration policy, in a bid to neutralise Tory strengths.
In a 50-minute speech that represented the clearest articulation yet of Labour’s mission for government, Starmer highlighted the need to restore a sense of “collective hope” after the “unwritten contract” where in return for hard work, you get on, had been broken by years of Conservative rule.
“These are just the first steps on a much bigger journey,” he said. “The next Labour government must restore our sense of collective hope. We should never be left cowering in a brace position. It’s time for Britain to stand tall again. To believe in ourselves again. To chart a new course and get our future back.”
He added: “That’s the deep cost of Tory failure. They keep talking about aspiration, but they don’t understand how they’ve choked it off for working people.”
The speech was not well received in all corners, however, with Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, tweeting: “As Nye Bevan said as far back as 1953, ‘We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.’”
Starmer began by railing against the economic plan announced by Liz Truss and Kwarteng last week, which abolished the top 45p rate of income tax.
He acknowledged that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the “immediate spark” for the cost of living crisis, but insisted he would not allow the government to use that as an excuse for failing to tackle the fallout. “The war didn’t ban onshore wind. The war didn’t scrap home insulation. The war didn’t stall British nuclear energy. The Tories did that,” he said.
His speech was peppered with references to the “graft” of ordinary working people, telling delegates that it was his “working-class impatience” that was driving him to fix the country’s problems. “If you’re born without privilege, you don’t have time for messing around,” he said.
Alluding to Truss’s remarks that British workers lacked “skill and application” and needed “more graft”, first revealed by the Guardian, he said: “We’re not going to take this. This is the fight … They’re the ones not prepared to graft. They’re the ones not prepared to do the hard yards on growth. But we will.”
To underline the shift in the party’s position on Brexit over the past few years, Starmer described it as a “totemic symbol” of Tory failures to grasp the nettle – insisting his priority would always be trying to make Brexit work.
Addressing the red-wall voters who backed the Tories in 2019 over Brexit, he said: “I want to speak directly to people who left Labour on this issue. Whether you voted leave or remain, you’ve been let down.” He added: “It’s no secret I voted remain – as the prime minister did.”
As the party starts the countdown to the next election, most likely to be in April 2024, Starmer claimed Scotland needed a Labour government at Westminster to deliver the power and resources to shape its own future, despite the party currently just having one MP in Scotland.
He categorically ruled out any formal election pact with the SNP, insisting: “No deal under any circumstances.” However, his failure to mention the Liberal Democrats prompted speculation that he was leaving the door open to an informal agreement with the party to each focus their attention on seats they were most likely to win.
And in remarks interpreted as a final dig at the former prime minister Boris Johnson, who he did not mention by name, Starmer said: “People have started to notice it’s possible to govern with integrity. To unite rather than divide.”