The leader of the U.K. Labour Party, Keir Starmer, finally had the opportunity on Tuesday to prove that he is not a robot — as his critics accuse him of being — but a temperate politician capable of using setbacks to his advantage. He took to the podium to deliver the most important speech of his political career to date at the British left’s annual congress in Liverpool, the last before the next general election.
“True democracy is citizen-led, politics needs an update. We demand a people’s house!” shouted an activist who rushed at Starmer and covered his jacket with glitter. With his right arm, the Labour leader blocked him from approaching the microphone as security reduced him to the ground and led him out of the auditorium. “If he thinks that bothers me, he doesn’t know me,” Starmer said, before quipping that he was glad he was the target and not his wife, “who is wearing a beautiful dress today.” Taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, he added: “Protest or power, that is why we changed our party,” to an ovation from supporters.
The activist, in his minute of glory, eventually became the perfect metaphor for the message Starmer sought to convey: over three and a half years, he had transformed the Labour he inherited from Jeremy Corbyn from a party obsessed with gestures and protest to one prepared to govern. In fact, it is the same recipe, the same perception among the British public, that swept Clement Attlee to Downing Street in 1945, and Tony Blair in 1997: the idea that the time has come for the British left to usher in a new era of change. Starmer described Labour as “a party no longer in thrall to gesture politics, no longer a party of protest — a party of service.”
The Labour leader’s message was fundamentally economic, with a proposal to revitalize the construction of housing in new neighborhoods and towns, as the Attlee government did after World War II, and a new alliance with businessmen — such as that championed by Blair — but hand in hand with the trade unions and with the goal that the “decade of national renewal” he has promised will benefit above all workers and the most vulnerable.
The leader who managed to eradicate latent anti-Semitism in the Labour Party during the Corbyn era also lifted conference attendees with his support for Israel, albeit without renouncing the historical line of the party regarding the Middle East conflict: “This party believes in the two-state solution. A Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel. But this action by Hamas does nothing for Palestinians. And Israel must always have the right to defend her people,” he said.
The Labour leader, who many consider prudent and moderate in not revealing what his long-term project for the United Kingdom consists of, has benefited from the debacle of the Conservative Party conference a week earlier, which was dominated by the ideas of the ruling party’s more extremist elements. Starmer called on Tory voters who have “watched in horror” as the Conservatives have plunged into the “murky waters of populism and conspiracy,” to vote for Labour instead: “If you feel our country needs a party that conserves. That fights for our union. Our environment. The rule of law. Family life. The careful bond between this generation and the next. Then let me tell you: Britain already has one. And you can join it. It’s this Labour Party,” he said during his conference speech.
Starmer has a knack for soundbites that are pleasing to everyone’s ears. To those who have been disappointed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announced setback in the fight against climate change, the Labour leader has promised an acceleration of these objectives. To employers, he announced loyalty and stability; to the unions, a new labor pact to recover the wage level frozen in recent years. And to the left wing of the party, always wary of any turn toward the center and technocracy, he has given the class speech that is always appreciated at a congress: “We’ve dragged this party back to service. We can do the same for politics. I grew up working class. I’ve been fighting all my life. And I won’t stop now. I’ve felt the anxiety of a cost-of-living crisis before. And until your family can see the way out, I will fight for you,” he promised.
A message of optimism aimed exclusively at domestic consumption. Brexit no longer exists in the party’s discourse. On the other hand, among those attending the ACC convention center in Liverpool, who left the auditorium with smiles after listening to Starmer, there was the impression, despite the leader’s appeals to caution, that the possibility of government is again — as it was a quarter of a century ago — within reach.
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