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OPINION - The secret of a Labour win is for Keir Starmer to sound like a conservative

Philip Collins  (Daniel Hambury)
Philip Collins (Daniel Hambury)

You can tell from the increasingly personal nature of Prime Minister’s Questions that the general election campaign has begun. You can tell from the opinion polls that Labour is within sight of victory. But you can also tell from a speech Keir Starmer made on Saturday that Labour still has a lot to do.

Though the next election is likely to take place in the autumn of 2024, it might, in a sense, have already happened. We have, in all probability, already seen the events that will define the outcome. The Johnson rule-breaking in Downing Street, the fleeting Truss-Kwarteng calamity and the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland are the political landmarks of the term since 2019. The economic landmarks are a meagre growth rate and inflation in double digits, the combination of which produces a crisis in the cost of living.

Something significant will have to change to give Rishi Sunak even the merest hope of recovery from the 25 per cent the Tories polled in the local elections. But just as Labour’s 1997 victory was won for them by the Conservatives on Black Wednesday in September 1992, so Starmer’s progress to Downing Street has been made probable by the actions of his opponents.

Yet I use that wording advisedly. There seems to be a far greater chance of Starmer becoming Prime Minister, perhaps in some sort of concordat with the Liberal Democrats, than of Labour winning emphatically. A poll released this morning by Labour Together suggests that Labour is on course for a 13-point lead over the Conservatives and a comfortable overall majority. Yet none of the shadow cabinet believe that is the territory they are in. There is a sense, hard to pinpoint but palpable all the same, that Labour has not yet sealed the deal. In the most recent polling by JL Partners, the three words that loomed largest about Starmer were “useless, weak and boring”. It’s not cut and dried yet.

That impression was the motivating force behind an important speech that Starmer delivered on Saturday to the Progressive Britain conference. He told the Labour Party that the changes needed to become electable — which many find uncomfortable — are by no means over. It is not wholly clear what he means by the strange phrase “Clause IV on steroids” but it was not the rhetoric of a man who thought he was on course for an uncomplicated victory. The paradox of the fractious Labour party is that, the more Sir Keir leads in the polls and therefore does not seem to need to change, the more authority he has in the party to do so.

At this point in Labour speeches the usual move is to go up into the hopes for a better world. Interestingly, Starmer did not do this, and his alternative approach is an encouraging portent of how Labour might close out the deal with the British electorate. The leader of the Opposition commended the virtues of community, of dignity, understanding and respect. He went on to discuss the importance of stability and concluded with the remarkable lines: “if that sounds conservative, then let me tell you: I don’t care. Somebody has to stand up for the things that make this country great, and it isn’t going to be the Tories”.

This is a recognition, which only dawns when Labour is on the verge of power, that many people are conservative about what they cherish most. Labour now needs to translate this instinct into policy. That would mean maintaining the spending discipline that Rachel Reeves has imposed so far. Labour does need to generate hope that public services will improve but that has to be about harnessing technology rather than spending money.

Then Labour has to deal conservatively with issues that could derail its campaign. The most obvious one is immigration where, beyond righteous rhetoric condemning the Tories, it is not obvious what Labour would do differently. The lack of a plausible line on immigration scuppered the Remain campaign in 2016; Labour needs to learn the lesson. So it does when it comes to trans rights. Starmer has been equivocal on the issue and Labour needs an approach that is appropriately progressive while not causing those of a conservative disposition to write the party off as irredeemably out of touch.

It is a balancing trick, to unite radicals and conservatives. The only politician who has achieved it so far is Boris Johnson. Starmer has work to do but this weekend’s speech shows he knows it.