For much of the last three years since Keir Starmer took over as Labor leader, the party’s approach has been characterized by a caution that, when it finally took the lead in the polls, turned into warnings about complacency.
After suffering its worst electoral defeat in over 80 years in 2019, some MPs were so demoralized that they questioned whether Labor would ever return to power in their working lives.
In the autumn of 2021, Boris Johnson looked set for a decade of rule as, in the memorable words of one commentator, he hunkered down in British politics. like a giant frog.
Starmer’s first response was to explain why voters lost faith in the Labor Party – Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, national security, public finance among the issues – and focus on defusing each one.
His next step was to take the fight to the Conservatives, ably aided by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss’ numerous own goals. But sitting back and trying to win purely by not being the Conservatives would never be enough.
From the outset, Starmer faced an impatient party, media and public eager for insight into his grand vision for a future Labor government. He left them waiting. “He knew he had to do the other parts first,” says a close aide.
His speech outlining his five missions for the government marked a turning point. We may not have learned much more about the details of his plans than we previously knew, but he did offer a substantial first glimpse of what a future Labor government might do.
Manchester was the first of a series of events – the second of which will be next week on the economy – over the next few months that will set out in more detail Labor’s plans for health, education, crime and climate. However, they are not expected to include thorny issues such as immigration.
Starmer, as he took the podium in his shirtsleeves rolled up, cracking jokes about nights on the town with Angela Rayner and his beloved Arsenal’s performance, looked more confident than ever.
He accused the Conservatives of being “palmless” and “devoid of ideas”, but most of his speech was about what the Labor Party could offer as an alternative to give the UK the “confidence to move forward” after becoming stuck in a “squatting position” for too long.
After the speech, he downplayed questions from some media outlets about confidence – could the public have faith that he would indeed fulfill his “missions” if he made it to No. 10, as he had scrapped his own leadership pledges, he was asked.
“These are our missions, this is our way of working”, he said. “I’m really glad I tried this out. If one wants to know whether the public trusts and wants any of it, then there’s a very good way to find out. We are going to have a general election.”
Senior Labor figures remain cautious about the robustness of their 20-point lead over the Conservatives – they still believe it is soft as a result of the government’s own problems – and the assumption by some Conservative MPs that it is their turn to defeat an election.
They also cite voters who tell them on the doorstep that they still don’t know what Starmer stands for and who ask what he would do if he got to No. 10. But for the first time since taking office as Labor leader, they will know the answer.