It’s been a bruising few days for Keir Starmer at Labour conference. The Labour leader has had to deal with internal warfare and in the process lost a member of his shadow cabinet. Tomorrow, Starmer will attempt to move past the turbulence of the last 48 hours and set out his vision to the public. Given that this will be Starmer’s first conference speech in front of the membership (the last conference was remote due to Covid restrictions), it is a test for his authority and his ability to connect both with his party and the public.
While there will be a number of policy announcements in the speech, Starmer’s team believe it will be first and foremost a chance to see who Starmer is as a person – and what that would mean if he were prime minister. In a series of pre-speech interviews with the BBC and Sky News this afternoon, Starmer has given a hint of the direction of travel. He said it’s time for the Labour party to change – ‘you can’t lose four elections and not change’. He dismissed complaints from the left of the party that he has reneged on his leadership pledges – saying the world has changed since he was elected leader. However, don’t expect to hear Corbyn mentioned by name in the speech – it could lead to a backlash in the hall among delegates.
Although Starmer’s team have so far been reluctant to say that he is moving the party back to the centre, both his rhetoric and the policies announced so far point to this. The Labour leader has told the BBC the party has to change or it will lose a fifth general election in a row. Starmer’s admission that winning is more important than party unity will no doubt upset those MPs on the left of the party. It also explains why Starmer’s team are in a rather upbeat mood despite all the infighting – they believe they have won some important battles that will allow them to marginalise the left.
When it comes to the other parts of Starmer’s speech, the Labour leader is under pressure to show he can react to events and address the fuel crisis after he was accused of being missing in action on the issue. Speaking today, he has called on the government to ‘prioritise key workers’ in the current fuel crisis. There is frustration among Labour MPs that it has taken so long to focus on the issue. But if Starmer can deliver a strong speech tomorrow, there is a chance that he can end conference in a much more positive place than how it started.