Keir Starmer kicked off the new year with a speech in Birmingham yesterday. It was a hopey changey one: there was no hook provided by the setting, such as a particular conference, and no big policy announcement. Instead, the former director of public prosecutions set out already-established ideas using the new framing of a ‘contract’ between the Labour Party and the British public. This agreement is based on the principles of security, prosperity and respect, Starmer said. His address was welcomed by trade unions from the consistently supportive Usdaw to the more critical TSSA, which both appreciated his focus on job security and the cost of living.
Some commentators were less sympathetic, though. John Rentoul highlighted that Starmer appeared at one point to struggle to remember the ‘security, prosperity, respect’ slogan as he answered questions from the press. “A slogan so boring not even Starmer could remember it” was the cutting Independent headline. It doesn’t help that the Labour leader’s stated principles keep changing – only in September, he told party conference they were “work, care, equality, security”.
The new formula is no ‘white heat of technology’ or ‘education, education, education’, so why was it chosen? The addition of ‘respect’ does two things: enables Starmer to talk about standards in public life after the Covid rule-breaking scandals, and borrows from Olaf Scholz’s election-winning message. This saw red posters across Germany emblazoned with “respekt für dich” in capital letters, sometimes alongside “kompetenz für Deutschland”, which sounds a lot like the UK Labour leader who is keen to stress his competence in contrast to Boris Johnson’s chaos. Those close to Starmer have said before that they see a striking resemblance between him and Scholz, both offering change but in a safe, reassuring way.
When asked by a journalist yesterday how this new contract actually translates to policy, Starmer pointed out that Labour has lots of policy in many different areas. He is right about that. The problem is that few of these proposals stick in the mind because their presentation continues to be unmemorable. It is not that Starmer needs to be more bombastic like Johnson, but that Labour is announcing slogans and policies without closely connecting the two – the only exception that comes to mind being ‘a new deal for working people’, which had clear actions attached. I would make two (admittedly very obvious) points to the leadership: repetition is key, so stick to a line; definition is also key, so associate a few general terms with a few specific plans. It is, after all, Labour strategists who believe the next general election could be as early as next year.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.