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A stage-invading protester inadvertently handed Sir Keir Starmer the perfect start to his Labour conference speech.
“Protest or power,” Starmer said as security staff rushed to remove the man from the stage. “That’s why we changed our party.”
The Labour leader nonchalantly brushed glitter from his hair and removed his now-sparkling jacket, gifting him a metaphor-heavy opportunity to roll up his sleeves and promise a “decade of national renewal”.
His speech was light on flashy policy promises — aside from a pledge of radical planning reforms — but heavy on rhetoric about tackling an “age of insecurity” and delivering hope to what he claimed was a damaged country.
Starmer’s speech was the highlight of a Labour conference where the party that in 2019 suffered a crushing election defeat was in a bullish mood about the coming general election, likely next year.
But the conference has been overshadowed by the Israel-Gaza conflict in the Middle East, depriving Starmer and his shadow cabinet media coverage at a crucial point in the political cycle.
With a typical poll lead of 16 points over the Conservatives, Starmer’s team has appeared relaxed, but one Labour official said it was “a massive problem” for the party.
“Conference is the one time a year we have a microphone and we’ve lost that this year,” the official said.
“A key part of our strategy is ensuring fed-up Tory voters stay home on election day — they will only do that if they realise Labour is not a risk. This was our chance to communicate that,” they added.
There was relief, however, in the Starmer camp that the conflict had not spawned inflammatory outbursts from hard-left party members who could have derailed the conference.
By Tuesday no major incident had erupted and delegates cheered Starmer when he backed Israel and its right to self-defence. Even the most staunch pro-Palestine Labour MPs condemned Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians.
This was billed as the conference when Labour would answer the question: “If not the Tories, why us?” But if anyone was waiting for Starmer to deliver a broad new set of policies, they were to be disappointed.
The buzz around the conference came not from the new policies on offer but from the proximity of power. Long queues formed to hear Starmer and Rachel Reeves, shadow chancellor, speak this week.
The managerial tone that Labour under Starmer has adopted was reinforced by an influx of tailor-made suits on the balmy banks of the Mersey river, as many of Britain’s business elite gathered to schmooze with the people they think will form the next government.
Starmer’s spokesperson insisted Labour’s promises to promote new towns, reform the planning system and cut NHS waiting lists framed an argument about “national renewal versus permanent decline”.
But in an era of high taxes and towering government debt, Labour has been forced to promote supply side reforms rather than reverting to traditional promises of higher spending.
Starmer and his team have also been anxious to avoid policies that could expose them to Tory attack, particularly when fanned by a hostile press. “Dull for the many, not the few,” joked one Labour official.
The confidence apparent at the Labour conference has been fuelled by the party’s belief that Rishi Sunak, prime minister, failed to land any serious blows during his own Conservative party conference in Manchester last week, an event described by Starmer as “a circus”.
Gary Smith, general secretary of the GMB union, said: “You can feel there’s a sense of momentum. Change is coming. This is a credible government-in-waiting, with a radical world view about rebuilding the economy.”
Labour strategists said they were surprised by Sunak’s decision to make a U-turn on the HS2 high-speed rail line the central feature of the Tory conference, particularly when the Conservatives are trying to portray Starmer as “a flip-flopper”.
A Deltapoll survey for the Mail on Sunday suggested voters are not convinced by the attack line. It found 53 per cent of people thought Sunak would flip-flop on decisions against 42 per cent for Starmer.
Polls also suggested Sunak had not received a “conference bounce”. Indeed in recent days he and his ministers have said projects earmarked to receive £36bn of funding intended for the abandoned northern leg of HS2 were “illustrative” rather than firm promises.
Greg Hands, Conservative chair, on Tuesday said Starmer failed to say how he would address illegal migration, adding that his plans to borrow to invest in green energy projects would fuel inflation.
“Sir Keir just offers more of the same short-term political decision-making of the last 30 years that has failed Britain — all glitter, no substance,” Hands said.
Starmer warned his party that the electoral battle has only just started. He said of his Conservative opponents: “Wherever you think the line is, they’ve already got plans to cross it.”
“They will be up for the fight to save their own skin. And this isn’t over — in fact, it has barely begun.”
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