“We’re not going to win back those we’ve lost with a single speech, or a clever policy offer” argued Kier Starmer to the empty room. This was fortunate because he had not much of either. Starmer’s party address had been merrily filled with a series of well-constructed arguments, neat little lines, and charming family stories, but it would not be remembered as a great piece of rhetoric, and was devoid of policy. If one overall theme emerged from it, it would be this: we are going to play the game this time, and we are going to try to play it well.

Starmer’s speech addressed exactly all the points it had to for a Labour leader dealing with the fallout of the most recent election. It made no attempts to defend the Corbyn era, instead accepting a ‘deserved’ defeat with its head bowed, and started to repent. Starmer’s repeated references to his love of country pushed hard against the unpatriotic representation the Labour party had received in recent years. Similarly, he made clear how his leadership, his ‘new leadership’, would better deal with Brexit (‘the debate […] is over’) and more importantly the anti-Semitism plaguing elements of the party. There were not one, but two targets of the speech, blundering Johnson and the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn.

That’s not to say he didn’t get a good few licks in at the Tories. A strong right hook drew comparisons between Johnson’s career as a lying journalist and Starmer’s as a terrorist-busting lawyer. There were also repeated jabs at the government’s incompetence, a now well-established method of attack, admittedly made easier by their current propensity for self-inflicted foot injuries. Yet there was no thorough indictment of Conservative ideology. No argument that a new society would be needed after the experiences and lessons of the pandemic and the recent protests in response to the unlawful killing of George Floyd, and even less of a clear plan of what such a society would look like. To radical proletariats, Starmer offered little.

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But as the speech pointed out, there have only been three Labour winners in the last three-quarters of a century, and none of them have been radical prepubescent proletariats. After over a decade of Conservative rule, the country desperately needs new leadership, and Labour’s previous offers of radical change have yet to be accepted. Labour has not appeared competent or patriotic and has had multiple unacceptable instances of antisemitism dilute its ability to criticise racism within the Conservative party. These issues have to be addressed before it can properly argue its case. This seems especially true given the long wait we have until the next election. Who knows what policies will be most relevant in 2024? Right now, any big policies risk criticism or reversal, and offer little reward.

Napoleon famously said never to interrupt your enemy while they’re making a mistake, and current polling shows Starmer has been wise to follow this advice. Still, though, Starmer’s first speech did not offer a clear alternative world. Eventually your enemies stop making mistakes, as the deposed Napoleon could attest. Starmer’s speech showed Labour is getting ready to set sail, now they just need to decide where they’re going.

image attribution: Rwendland