There were many memorable, powerful moments in the conference hall on Wednesday, but the one that stands out for me is when Keir turned to the handful of hecklers and asked them a simple question: “shouting slogans, or changing lives?”. Conference responded with a thunderous standing ovation and a chant: “changing lives, changing lives!”.
It was one of those defining moments where an argument that’s been rumbling on for decades crystallised around a very clear choice: is Labour a protest movement, or is it a party of government? And the resounding response of conference to Keir’s question told the country what it has been longing to hear – that the Labour Party is well and truly back as a credible party of government.
It was a turning point for Keir, and for our party. It was the moment that the country had been waiting for. It settled the argument. Having dealt with the ‘noises-off’, Keir then moved into the substance of the story that he wanted to tell about his own life, and how it connects so closely with the past, present and future of our national story.
The red thread that ran through the entirety of Keir’s speech was that work, care, equality and security are not only the foundations upon which strong and resilient societies are built – they are the priorities of the British people, and they are the priorities of the Labour Party. And he is absolutely right to make this argument, for three reasons.
First, because these four building blocks of the good society are not only about priorities, they’re also about values. They’re about pride, dignity and identity. Good, rewarding work is not just about the pay slip at the end of the month – it’s about contribution, about providing for your family and being part of a team that is striving to achieve a common purpose.
Caring for others is the glue that holds families and communities together. The vast majority of the British people are not driven by selfishness or greed, but by kindness, compassion, sacrifice and the desire to look after those who are not able to look after themselves.
Equality is at the heart of the innate sense of fair play that defines British culture and values. If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be justly rewarded. If you contribute and do the right thing, your contribution should be valued. The government’s role is to level the playing field so that every young person gets a fair shot at realising their ambitions.
Security is the bedrock of strong and resilient societies, and there can be no doubt that for decades people’s sense of local and national security has been eroding, to the point where we now live in what the economist and author Paul Collier calls the ‘Age of Anxiety’. In terms of local security, Keir is absolutely right to focus on law and order, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone who is more qualified to do so, given his background.
Turning to our sense of national security, there is an equally compelling story to tell. For decades, unfettered globalisation has been allowed to rip through our communities, off-shoring jobs, tearing at the social fabric of our towns, and complacently inviting Chinese state-owned enterprises to dominate our supply chains and insert themselves into our critical national infrastructure. The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.
In July, I launched Renaissance – a voter engagement initiative – with support from a number of colleagues from across our labour movement. Our focus is on voters who’ve switched from Labour to the Conservatives over the course of the last decade, and it is crystal clear that Keir is hitting the right notes with them.
Because they want a Labour Party that concentrates relentlessly on partnering with business to bring work and good jobs back to their towns and communities, and on building a resilient Britain that can stand on its own two feet.
They want a Labour Party that will put sound and sensible management of the public finances at the heart of its economic policy. They want a Labour Party that will invest in and support our police and judicial system to deliver law and order across the length and breadth of our country. They want a Labour Party that is fiercely patriotic, but recognise the reality that a level of international cooperation is necessary to serve Britain’s interests and values.
Our party faces an electoral Everest, and we are still at Base Camp. In order to achieve an outright majority at the next general election, we have to win 124 constituencies, of which 60% are in the North, the Midlands and Wales, and 104 are in towns.
It is clear that trust in Labour in these communities has taken a serious hit over the last ten to 15 years, where voters have come to perceive Labour as a party of welfare not work, of spend not save, and of not really liking the country that we say we want to lead. We are facing a wall of cynicism, which can only be broken down if we settle on a small number of compelling stories about the future of our country which we repeat, repeat and repeat again.
Keir’s speech has undoubtedly set us on the right path, but the coming weeks and months will be absolutely crucial, if we are to leave Base Camp and begin the long and arduous journey to the summit. Nothing short of a Labour renaissance is required if we are going to give ourselves a fighting chance of winning the next election.