‘How’. That is the word that hangs over Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to Labour’s conference today. It was very long on things he intends to do when (if?) his party get back into office. Indeed, it was very full full-stop. On detail, however, our man was silent.
Such shallowness was offset by the sheer breadth of the thing. It started out with one pretty good theme, and by the end had spawned at least half a dozen more. All delivered at the pace and tone of an audiobook on 75 per cent speed.
It was not without achievements. This might be the first time since 2010 that a Labour leader has tried, let alone succeeded, to get his conference to cheer at the mention of things New Labour achieved in office. Normally an Opposition only really starts back to power when it accepts that it, and not the electorate, were wrong. Labour have added the extra step of reconciling themselves with their successes, and taken a decade to start.
And there was a quiet moment where Starmer explicitly challenged his activists about their own implicit logic: if the Conservatives are as awful as my deputy says they are, why are they in Government? How did they walk away with swathes of our old, ancestor-worshipping vote?
These could have been a solid core of a much shorter speech. Instead, it seemed mostly to consist of lambasting the Tories for not having a plan whilst signally failing to give any indication that Labour had one of its own.
Let’s take social care as an example. This is obviously home terrain for the left (cue a brave moment where Starmer urged the hall to its feet to clap for the NHS) and he landed some good punches on the iniquity of taxing working people to fund the social care settlement. Except he then took a swipe at the prospect of people having to sell their houses to pay for care.
You can either ask older people with fabulously valuable assets to sell them to fund their social care, or you can tax other people to subsidise the inheritances of those older people’s children. That’s the choice. Starmer showed no sign of recognising it.
Once you spot the pattern, it’s everywhere. So there’s a section where the Labour leader pointed out how little we hear about the details of the SNP’s record of misrule in Scotland. This mere seconds after he praised “the difference Mark Drakeford and his team are making in Wales” whilst offering – you guessed it – no details. The best place to hear those is probably the upcoming Conservative Conference. A bolder Labour leader might wonder why.
Any suggestion that he might have had an original thought about the constitutional question, meanwhile, was scotched by the announcement that he will put Gordon Brown in charge of a review on the subject, in which the former Prime Minister can continue to have the one idea he’s been having since 1999 and keep trying to file a second draft of his political obituary. Depressing stuff.
Or schools. There’s no mention of what a Labour Government would do about grade inflation, the most pressing actual issue facing the Department for Education at present. But apparently the Opposition will offer “a curriculum for tomorrow”, and scorn the Government’s efforts to revive Latin.
Such a ruthlessly utilitarian and practical approach to education wouldn’t seem to obviously fit with Starmer’s claim that “it’s stupid to allow theatre, drama and music to collapse in state schools”, but presumably that’s a bridge to be crossed in office. Or perhaps Labour will draw up a list of what parts of our cultural heritage deserve to be universally accessible and which the posh get to keep for themselves.
It’s good that Labour seems to be making a real effort to show that its serious about winning power again. But the fact that this can be offered as sincere praise, eleven years after they lost it, is quite the indictment of where the Opposition have ended up. And if Starmer has a detailed plan to fix the country’s ills, he cut it for time.